Methane regulation: Stay pragmatic and seek the possible

Perspectives blog
Sara Ortwein - Feb. 05, 2018

In November, ExxonMobil signed onto a commitment with several companies aimed at reducing methane emissions within the natural gas industry.  That agreement built off earlier efforts we announced in 2017 to enhance ExxonMobil’s voluntary methane-reduction activities.

As I wrote at the time about this multi-partner pact, advocating for sound policies and regulations is key to helping drive improvements.

That’s because even though the companies that signed the agreement are fairly large (BP, Shell, Eni, Statoil, Total, etc. in addition to ExxonMobil), our methane emissions constitute a very small fraction of the overall natural gas picture. The correct mix of policies and regulations could help the entire industry raise the bar.

So what would a framework for jurisdictionally appropriate regulatory action with regard to methane look like?

Ultimately, we think it should include five key elements:

  • New wells should follow “green completion” procedures. After completion, rather than venting the methane comingled with the well’s “flowback” (a mixture of water, gas, and some solids), capturing the gas for eventual sale or combusting it with a flare can significantly cut down on industry methane emissions.
  •  The use of high-bleed pneumatic control devices should be eliminated. This means not using HBPs on new facilities, and phasing them out from existing operations over a reasonable timeframe.
  • Rules should promote Leak Detection and Repair programs. Initially, these efforts would focus on high-volume operations or where higher concentrations of facilities exist, and be performed on an annual basis. Leaks that are detected should be fixed as soon as is practicable.
  • Manual well unloadings should be monitored by field personnel to minimize the amount of gas vented to atmosphere. Personnel can be in nearby proximity so once water is removed from the well tubing and gas begins to flow, they can resume normal operations.
  • Basic data should be reported to regulatory bodies for consolidation. By growing the store of knowledge, we can increase understanding of emissions profiles, better track our overall progress, and enable the regulator community knowledge capacity.

The beauty of these principles is that they could underpin a regulatory effort that both encourages and keeps up with continuous technological innovation. And they can be designed so as not to unduly drive up costs on natural gas producers.

As much as anything, we will need to stay pragmatic and seek the possible. We’ve made a lot of progress so far in minimizing methane emissions from industry operations. I am confident we can achieve even more.

Sara Ortwein is president of XTO Energy.

Tags:   emissions reductionmethane
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