Gov. Polis claims Colorado has already achieved a 40% GHG reduction ahead of milestones

And thus that analysis provided by third-party entities on Colorado’s lack of progress and need to phase out coal by 2025 or stop expanding fossil fuel production are irrelevant… Polis did say the roadmap calls on the Public Utilities Commission, for example, to make the target 80% reduction in electric power emissions by 2030 a “floor” rather than the ceiling, and Polis said rapid reductions in the cost of utility-scale solar and wind energy make further reductions attainable. 

The Air Quality Control Commission has the much more complex task of reducing carbon dioxide from millions of vehicles, from industrial and office buildings, and from widely dispersed sources across the state. Colorado has matched California’s standards for increases in sales of electric-powered vehicles, whose energy source is far cleaner than petroleum, but other specifics are lacking.  Polis/his APCD and CDPHE staff have refused to draft the implementing regulations required by law, for the AQCC to consider and pass, for the 2025 and 2030 targets. EDF’s calculation is that the state has not developed the implementing regulations for 97% of the GHG reductions required by law, for either 2025 or 2030.

The state’s “Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap” generally outlines the kinds of steps that could be taken to cut emissions but lacks specifics and firm timetables.

Wild Earth Guardians is suing the Polis administration in Denver District Court for failing to have in place a comprehensive rulemaking to cut emissions by July 2020, as required by one of the laws, Senate Bill 96. In December, the Environmental Defense Fund, which has criticized the state’s step-by-step approach of setting emissions for each sector, petitioned the Air Quality Control Commission to instead adopt a comprehensive plan that would set legally binding, declining emissions limits for all of Colorado’s major sources of greenhouse gases.

In addition to EDF, two more environmental groups, Western Resource Advocates and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have raised questions about the state’s approach to reducing the heat-trapping gases and voiced doubts about whether the targets can be met. All three have done calculations on how the state can meet its targets. To this, 350 adds its analysis focusing solely on the oil and gas sector.


The Air Quality Control Commission is responsible for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from millions of vehicles and industrial and office buildings. Colorado Sun, Jan 14, 2021

United Power’s Rattlesnake Solar Farm sits on 175 acres near Hudson, Colorado. (Carl Payne, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The state released its final version of the highly touted “Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap” Thursday, claiming it lays down the path and the timing of specific rules and legislation to achieve massive emissions reductions. But environmental advocates said it still is too vague to guarantee real change. The report by Gov. Jared Polis and his climate change team, required by previous groundbreaking legislation, is meant to map the role of state departments and commissions in achieving 90% reductions in 2005 emissions levels by 2050.

Polis said Colorado has already achieved a 40% reduction, ahead of midpoint targets, but needs to accelerate carbon dioxide reduction in the three key areas of electric generation, oil and gas production, and transportation. Separate from the roadmap’s targets, Polis has set the goal of 100% renewable energy use in the state in less than two decades. 

The environmental imperative, Polis said in releasing the final report, is even more obvious now than when he took office two years ago with pledges to combat the greenhouse effect of climate change. The events Colorado “couldn’t have imagined” include three massive drought-driven wildfires in 2020 alone that grew into the largest in state history, Polis said, as well as an ongoing drought that is becoming the norm rather than the exception.

Scenes of wildfire evacuation across the state in 2020 served as “a stark reminder that climate refugees don’t only live near the oceans on the coast, but right here in Colorado,” Polis said. 

MORE: Colorado’s statewide drought “pretty dire.” It’ll take more than a season’s snowfall to get out of it.

The roadmap calls on the Public Utilities Commission, for example, to make the target 80% reduction in electric power emissions by 2030 a “floor” rather than the ceiling, and Polis said rapid reductions in the cost of utility-scale solar and wind energy make further reductions attainable. 

Regulators are joining with advocates for creating timelines for drafting new regulations at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to reduce high emissions from drilling, production and refining, and many of those rules will be finished in 2021. 

The Air Quality Control Commission has the much more complex task of reducing carbon dioxide from millions of vehicles, from industrial and office buildings, and from widely dispersed sources across the state. Colorado has matched California’s standards for increases in sales of electric-powered vehicles, whose energy source is far cleaner than petroleum, but other specifics are lacking. 

Many have criticized the draft roadmap for not having clear programs and firm timelines and deadlines for action. 

The final plan does set out a range of actions and rulemakings for the next two years but mainly suggests using laws that were on the books prior to HB 1261 (and not getting the job done. The governor and administration have not wanted to make use of the expansive authorities and deadlines called for by HB19-1261/SB19-096), already on calendars of air, utility and oil and gas regulatory commissions, and some remain to be defined.

Asked what was added to give the roadmap more specific direction since the draft was criticized, Polis pointed to language addressing inequity in climate change impacts and how those can be remedied. The report pledges, for example, to build more equity-focused community outreach into the rulemaking process, and to include equity analysis in reviews such as permitting and siting pollution sources. 

Later Thursday, the governor’s office pointed to other specific emission policies in the report, including examples such as required reductions in vehicle trips by large employers, a rulemaking process that will start this summer.

State Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat representing Thornton, Northglenn and Westminster, said the roadmap now includes more specific timelines and measurable goals in climate equity work.  “What’s being released today is a significant step forward,” Winter said. “We need to prioritize equity first and foremost; historically disadvantaged communities have borne the brunt of climate change.” 

Rep. Alex Valdez, a Denver Democrat, said equity goals will include more access to electric vehicles and charging stations, for example, in underserved Denver neighborhoods. “I represent one of the most polluted ZIP codes in the United States, and they’ll be very happy to hear we are taking bold steps.”

Environmental advocates said equity needs are urgent, and plans like the greenhouse gas roadmap don’t include specific, immediate change. 

Successfully reducing climate pollution and meeting Colorado’s climate goals must be done in a way that is quantifiable, enforceable, and equitable,” Stacy Tellinghuisen, senior climate policy analyst for the environmental group Western Resource Advocates, said in a statement. 

Tellinghuisen said a quick review of the finalized roadmap “still doesn’t appear to meet those criteria. Specifically, we’ve heard from our frontline community partners — and we agree — that the equitable part is missing from the roadmap.” 

MORE: Colorado is behind on targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions. How far should the state push industry to get there?

Achieving the state’s climate action plans “requires engagement and support of disproportionately impacted communities, yet we are still waiting for (the state health department’s) equity framework,” a coalition of conservation advocates said in a release Thursday. “The delay of this framework signals that disproportionately-impacted communities were not sufficiently consulted or centered, and therefore, are unlikely to reap the benefits that could come from the governor’s roadmap.”

The final roadmap, in a marked change, does outline a broad range of legislative actions that need to be taken (or could be helpful, rather, especially as the executive branch is not utilizing their authority and capacity given by the legislature, including 6.5 new staff to help draft the implementing regulations) to help meet the emission reduction goals.

Polis, for example, in his budget up for the legislature’s approval is proposing $40 million for clean energy financing, and $5 million for local governments for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.

Other elements that will need legislative action include setting carbon reduction targets for gas utilities and requiring large commercial buildings to track and reduce emissions.

Colorado officials are emphasizing the climate change effort can make large greenhouse gas reductions while still providing safe, reliable and affordable energy for consumers and industry. Polis on Thursday included the comments of renewable power executive Kevin Smith, whose Lightsource BP is building massive solar power arrays in Pueblo that replace coal-fired power generation

Lightsource BP is finishing the $285 million Bighorn solar array next to the Evraz steel-rail factory in Pueblo, and will soon announce details on another $200 million array there, Smith said. Both the energy arrays and the steel factory are creating hundreds of new jobs, not just because of climate change targets, but because the energy they need will be cheaper. 

They are expanding the steel mill for rails in part because they now have long-term, cost competitive power,” Smith said.


An environmental group claims 70% of Colorado’s greenhouse gas emissions come from oil and gas. But that’s in dispute.

350 Colorado’s worst-case scenario modeling suggests oil and gas should be gone from the state by 2030 to slow climate change.

Mark Jaffe Colorado Sun, Jan 14, 2021

An oil well pumpjack in a farm field in Weld County against the backdrop of the Front Range on June 5, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In what is becoming a running skirmish between environmental groups and the Polis administration over how to curb the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, a new analysis calculates that 70% of all the gases come from oil and gas operations and calls for the shutdown of the sector by 2030.

The figures used in the analysis done by 350 Colorado are being disputed by both state air quality regulators and the oil and gas industry.

“I think we have to use the most protective numbers we can,” said Micah Parkin, executive director of 350 Colorado.

The number 350 is a reference to the parts per billion (ppb) of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere at which scientists say the Earth remains a livable planet. In May 2020, the level was 417 ppb and it is rising each year.

We really need to take action quickly to avoid the worst-case scenario,” Parkin said.

Industry groups, however, contend that the report’s numbers are jerry-rigged to advance the environmental group’s avowed campaign of “Keeping Fossil Fuels in the Ground.” “As a national environmental group, 350 has made it clear it wants to ban all fossil fuels with no recognition of the safety and financial impacts that would have on Coloradans and all Americans,” Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group, said in a statement. Haley called the 350 report a ploy “to dupe regulators into banning energy production in Colorado.”

While not adopting as hard a line as 350, other environmental groups have challenged the state’s approach to curbing greenhouse gases and question whether the targets – a 26% reduction from 2005 levels by 2025, a 50% cut by 2030 and 90% by 2050 – can be met in the face of expanding oil and gas operations.

In 2019, the legislature passed and Gov. Jared Polis signed into law two bills that laid the groundwork for a comprehensive plan to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Since then environmentalists have chafed at what they see as a slow pace by the administration  in rolling out a complete plan relying instead on a string of individual rulemakings sector by sector.

Wild Earth Guardians is suing the Polis administration in Denver District Court for failing to have in place a comprehensive rulemaking to cut emissions by July 2020, as required by one of the laws, Senate Bill 96. In December, the Environmental Defense Fund, which has criticized the state’s step-by-step approach of setting emissions for each sector, petitioned the Air Quality Control Commission to instead adopt a comprehensive plan that would set legally binding, declining emissions limits for all of Colorado’s major sources of greenhouse gases.

MORE: Colorado is behind on targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions. How far should the state push industry to get there?

The AQCC was designated by the 2019 laws as the group to develop and implement greenhouse gas reduction plans.

A draft of the state’s “Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap” generally outlining the kinds of steps that could be taken to cut emissions has been criticized by environmental groups for lacking specifics and firm timetables.

“It is wishful thinking,” Parkin said. A final roadmap is slated to be adopted this month.

In addition to EDF, two more environmental groups, Western Resource Advocates and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have raised questions about the state’s approach to reducing the heat-trapping gases and voiced doubts about whether the targets can be met. All three have done calculations on how the state can meet its targets. To this, 350 adds its analysis focusing solely on the oil and gas sector.

All these critiques boil down to a numbers game and there is a sharp divide on how 350 is calculating its figures.

In the state’s roadmap, transportation and coal-fired power generation are the two biggest sources of greenhouse gases, accounting for about 44% of the total in 2020. Oil and gas operations were the third-largest source with about 17% of all emissions.

How did 350 get to 70% for oil and gas?

  • First, it adopted a more robust measure for how much heat methane traps. Methane is much more efficient than carbon dioxide in holding heat in the atmosphere, but it is also more short-lived. Carbon dioxide can linger in the atmosphere for up to 200 years, while methane breaks down in around 10 years. (incorrect – see So, calculating the heat-trapping prowess of a gas is a function of quantity and time. The state uses a 100-year time frame, which is how carbon dioxide’s potential is measured, and comes up with methane being 28 times as potent as carbon dioxide. 350 uses a 20-year time frame, which boosts the heat trapping efficiency to 86 times that of CO2.

“We need to focus on the most immediate impacts, the heat-trapping that is happening now, when we make policies,” Parkin said.

But using the 100-year standard “is consistent with the federal and international protocols for developing and reporting greenhouse gas inventories,” the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said in a statement to The Colorado Sun.

The roadmap, the statement said, includes a section comparing impacts of various time horizons, including 20 years, and shows reduced emissions in all the scenarios.


The second place where 350 boosted the impact of the oil and gas industry is in calculating the leak rate from the sector’s operations.

The state is using a leak rate for oil and gas wells of 2.9% of all produced oil and gas. The estimate comes from a model that estimates regional emissions based on the total amount of oil and gas produced and applies that on a per well basis. Using studies in other oil producing basins – in part  from Texas and Pennsylvania – and aerial surveys, 350 argues that the rate used should be 4.1%

When estimates of methane emissions are made based on summing up all the on-the-ground readings, so-called bottom-up calculation, which the state does, they are consistently lower than aerial or satellite methane measurements  – so-called bottom-down measurements. 

This leads some researchers to contend something is being missed in the ground calculations.

Those top-down measurements, however, don’t tell you the exact source of the methane, said Mike Paules, associate director for API Colorado, an industry trade group.

“This is one of the reasons we’ve been pleading with CDPHE to do more flyover measurements or satellite measurements,” Parkin said. “We need better data.”

The department said it is “working on setting up aerial, satellite and ground-based tools to better assess and confirm emissions and inventories.”

Both state regulators and industry spokesmen say using leak-rate data from oil fields in other states doesn’t reflect the six years of rulemakings to reduce leaks that have gone on in Colorado.

Inspections are being made with infrared cameras. Fugitive emissions from tanks have been tightened as have those from the controllers for valves and other equipment. 

Routine flaring – the burning off of waste gases – has been banned and a rulemaking to require zero-emission controllers is set for February.

“We’ve done more to reduce our footprint than any other basin,” Paules said.  “Either they aren’t aware of what we’ve done or they are failing to recognize it.”

Natural gas flaring from a Williams Energy facility can be seen from Garfield County Road 215 on Aug. 14, 2020. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Still, 350 rejects the roadmaps’ projected reduction in leaks to just 0.9% by 2030. “That is totally unrealistic,” Parkin said.

“We think the roadmap is based upon reasonable estimations and evaluation of the Colorado-specific data,” CDPHE said. “We also believe that data collected as a result of the 2019 rulemaking will help with future evaluations of understanding methane emissions and tracking progress towards our GHG reductions goals.”

The climate change law requires oil and gas companies to file with the state a full inventory of all the greenhouse gases they emit annually. The first of those reports will come this spring.  Paules said that should give everyone a better idea of the industry’s impact.

Finally, 350 contends that all the oil and natural gas shipped out of state should also be added to the state’s emissions regardless of where they are used. “It all ends up in the atmosphere,” Parkin said.

Not so, Paules said, as some of the natural gas and oil ends up in fertilizers, plastics and pharmaceuticals.

“That is a good point,” Parkin said, but added, “we considered the other end products created from small amounts of oil and gas exported and used combustion emissions estimates as a proxy for those processes.”

Adding all the oil and gas exported from Colorado to the state’s greenhouse gas targets would make hitting the prescribed reductions very difficult.

350’s solution is to decrease the number of operating oil and gas wells in the state and the number of new permits by 10% each year for the next 10 years, although the organization does not address the financial and legal issues of such a policy.

“We are in a crisis and need to take action and we have to phase out oil and gas in the next decade,” Parkin said.

The problem is that people aren’t going to stop driving their cars or cooking their food or heating their homes with natural gas, COGA’s Haley said. “Our local energy production is being done safely and responsible,” he said. “It’s far better to do it here, where we can make sure production is meeting the highest of standards.”

UPDATED: This story was updated Jan. 14, 2021, at 5:45 p.m. to correct the spelling of Micah Parkin’s first name and expand her quote about how the emissions of oil and gas shipped from Colorado are accounted for by 350 Colorado. The method the state of Colorado uses to calculate leak rates for oil and gas wells also was corrected.

CO2Coal Energy Colorado Air Quality Control Commission

Colorado Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap


UN Special Report confirms urgent need to reduce methane emissions

By Ilissa Ocko / Bio / Twitter profile / Published: October 11, 2018

The latest UN IPCC report makes it crystal clear that carbon dioxide (CO2) is not the only pollutant that matters for limiting future warming.

Deep reductions in emissions of non-CO2 pollutants, particularly methane (CH4), are essential to staying below temperature targets, and have the added benefits of improving public health, food security, and ecosystems.

Further, the new report highlights robust evidence that limiting warming to 1.5 °C above preindustrial levels, rather than 2 °C, greatly reduces risks of water stress, extreme events, sea level rise, and more. For example, risks of allowing temperatures to rise to 2 °C include several hundred million more people susceptible to poverty, ten million more people threatened by sea level rise, fifty percent more people under water stress, and 1.5 million metric tons of loss in annual fisheries catch.

The report stresses that we are running out of time, with only about ten years to get a handle on greenhouse gas emissions if we’re going to stay within 1.5 °C degrees. The benefits of staying below 1.5 °C are powerful and plentiful, and reductions in short-lived climate pollutants, especially methane, are key to achieving this goal.

Overshooting 1.5 °C will have negative consequences to human and natural systems, such as potentially irreversible impacts to coral reefs. An overshoot also increases our dependence on carbon dioxide removal mechanisms, possibly to an extent that is not technologically possible as of now.

Pathways to limit warming to 1.5 °C include reducing human-caused methane emissions by thirty five percent or more by 2050 relative to 2010 levels.

Why methane matters

Methane is responsible for around a quarter of today’s warming, for three reasons: it is more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide pound for pound; it produces another potent greenhouse gas, ozone, when it oxidizes in the atmosphere; and we emit around a million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere from human activities every day.

Further, methane impacts the climate in fundamentally different ways than carbon dioxide, because the two greenhouse gases have vastly different atmospheric lifetimes.

CO2 can last for centuries in the atmosphere, building up over time and committing our planet to warming for generations to come. On the other hand, methane only lasts for around a decade, packing an intense warming punch for only a short period of time.

So we can think of it as CO2 controlling how hot the planet ultimately gets, and methane controlling how fast we get there.

While it is therefore essential to decarbonize society to stabilize long-term temperatures, methane reductions can have a near-immediate impact on cooling the planet because it is so rapidly removed from the atmosphere. This can limit warming during our lifetimes, and is an important and necessary complement to simultaneous reductions in CO2.

Ways to reduce methane

There are three main sources of methane emissions from human activities: energy use, agricultural activities, and waste management.

The current technological feasibility and cost effectiveness of reducing emissions from each of these sources varies considerably.

However, there is one sector that has proven technologies at little cost to reduce a large fraction of methane emissions: oil and gas. Oil and gas operations are the largest industrial source of methane. Estimates of abatement potentials show that we could reduce global emissions by 45% below 2012 levels for little cost, and we have the technology available to reduce emissions by 75% below 2012 levels.

While global oil and gas operations are currently reported as being responsible for around a fifth of today’s human-caused methane emissions, new research suggests that emissions have been low-balled; in the U.S., emissions have been found to be 60% higher than previously reported.

Although decarbonization of our global oil and gas system will ultimately reduce a majority of methane emissions from this sector, transitioning away from fossil fuels including natural gas and oil will take quite some time. On the other hand, these opportunities to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas activities are available now, many of them are easy to implement, and the benefits would be near-immediate. With no time to waste, methane reductions are urgently needed to stay within 1.5 °C of warming.

Overall, oil and gas methane reductions are the fastest, cheapest actions we can take to slow the rate of climate change.


New Studies Find Massive Methane Leakage From Fracking

New studies from the Front Range area of Colorado, Utah, and Marcellus region of Pennsylvania have found VOC and methane leakage from fracking wells that far exceed EPA’s predictions. These studies measure methane levels from the air, which can capture emission data from fracking plays that can have thousands of wells concentrated in one area. Previous studies have used ground-based measurements of a handful of wells, which can miss super-emitting sources in the gas fields.


Scientists have found that an area of Colorado that has seen a huge boom in oil and gas drilling has been emitting three times more methane than previously believed — 19.3 tons an hour. The area is called the Front Range, and is home to one of the biggest fracking booms in the US.

The scientists also measured industry emissions of cancer-causing benzene and smog-forming volatile organic compounds at levels up to seven times higher than government agencies have estimated. Their study — done at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and partly supported by the Environmental Defense Fund — is based on data gathered in 2012 from aircraft flying over the drilling zones north of Denver. These emissions have been shown to be dangerous to people near gas development, causing health problems in adults and linked to birth defects.

Acknowledging the serious problem posed by air pollution from fracking, Colorado’s Governor John Hickenlooper proposed a set of new air regulations on fracking, the first in the nation. Various shale industry companies approved the regulations, which signals that the industry is aware that air emissions from fracking are dangerous and undeniable. Because of the fracking boom, the ozone levels in the Front Range of Colorado are worse than those in Los Angeles.


A study published in March of 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that drilling operations in Pennsylvania emitted 100 to 1,000 times more methane than the Environmental Protection Agency previously estimated. The study took air measurements from 7 well pads, and observed a leakage of 34 grams of methane per second, on average, much higher than the EPA-estimated 0.04 grams to 0.30 grams of methane per second.

The study, conducted by Cornell University, found methane emission rates from the drilling process were up to 1000 times EPA estimates.


A team of researchers from NOAA in Utah’s Uintah basin determined that methane emissions from the oil and natural gas fields in totaled about 55,000 kg (more than 120,000 lbs) an hour. That emission rate is about 6 to 12 percent of the average hourly natural gas production in Uintah County during the month of February. Overall they found a leakage rate of 60 tons per hour for the day they measured.

A recent industry funded study out of the University of Texas estimated that methane’s leak rate, nationally, is around 1.5 percent of production, but studies like the one done over the Uintah basin call those estimations into question.

Methane Emissions From End Use

The infrastructure required to transport and use gas has become a major concern as new studies have found huge methane leakage rates. For example, new methane surveys in major cities have found dangerously, sometimes explosively high levels of methane leaking from aging city infrastructure. A recent deadly explosion in New York City was due to exactly these kinds of methane leaks.

Pipeline Leakage

Beyond the methane leaks from drilling and venting associated with existing and abandoned wells, more methane is lost every day in processing, handling and transporting gas to its ultimate point of consumption. Pipeline losses occur in a more than 2-million-mile system that stretches from the production fields to residential customers. This gas transportation system has three main parts:

1.) gathering lines in production fields which are largely unregulated, and in many systems, unknown and unmapped (about 240,000 miles estimated);

2.) natural gas transmission pipelines to processing and storage locations (278,269 miles); and

3.) distribution lines to residential and business customers (about 1.8 million miles).

Leakage of methane from pipelines – a problem throughout the world – has been reported and studied for years. New Scientist noted in September 1990, that natural gas pipeline mains in Great Britain leaked so much methane that the leaks there contributed more to global warming than did the burned gas. As of 2006 the U.S. natural gas industry operated over 38,000 miles of natural gas pipelines that were made of cast iron, the most leak-prone type of gas piping. In 2012, a U.S. GAO study on thousands of miles of “gathering lines” that collect oil and gas from production sites revealed that these lines are not regulated by the federal government, meaning they are not regularly inspected for leaks or corrosion.

An incident report of January 2013 filed for a Questar Company natural gas pipeline operating in rural Duchesne County, Utah near the town of Roosevelt, indicated that a relief valve on the line was opened and vented gas for approximately 3 hours and 55 minutes, resulting in a “DOT reportable incident” of some 3 million standard cubic feet or more of unintentionally released gas. This report also indicated that the release occurred in “a very rural area,” and that there were “no off-site impacts reported.”  These are the kinds of methane releases that are likely occurring throughout the oil and gas patch nationwide.

Urban Distribution Pipes: Markey Report

There is a widespread national problem with gas leaks and pipeline failures in urban gas distribution systems. According to a report released by U.S. Senator Edward Markey (D-MA), gas distribution companies in 2011 reported releasing 69 billion cubic feet of natural gas to the atmosphere, almost enough to meet the state of Maine’s gas needs for a year and equal to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of about six million automobiles. Gas companies, however, are slow to replace bad pipe. In 2012 gas companies replaced just 3 percent of their distribution mains made of cast iron or bare steel. Leaky gas pipes nationwide presently span about 91,000 miles across 46 states. Nationally, consumers paid at least $20 billion from 2000-2011 for gas that was unaccounted for and never used. Observes the Markey report:

Natural gas has been touted as a cleaner alternative to coal for producing electricity, but its environmental benefits cannot be fully realized so long as distribution pipelines are leaking such enormous quantities of gas, which is primarily comprised of methane, a greenhouse gas that is at least 21 times more potent than CO-2. Americans also remain at risk from gas explosions and other safety hazards caused by leaky natural gas pipelines. From 2002 to 2012, almost 800 significant incidents on gas distribution pipelines, including several hundred explosions, killed 116 people, injured 465 others, and caused more than $800 million in property damage.

In 2013, researchers conducted a 1500-mile street-by-street survey in Washington, DC, finding nearly 6,000 leaks from the city’s aging pipe system, including 12 locations where methane had collected to explosive levels (50,000 to 500,000 ppm). A similar report conducted in Boston found almost 3,400 pipeline leaks across 785 miles. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), a regulatory agency within the Department of Transportation, is responsible for tracking pipeline safety and emissions.   According to analysis of 2011 industry data reported to PHMSA, the average lost and unaccounted for percentage of gas among 174 companies with natural gas distribution systems of 1000 pipeline miles or more was 1.6%.

Together with studies of gas production fields that have found methane emissions many times greater than estimated, these studies paint a picture of a gas infrastructure that contributes significant amounts of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere.

Purposeful Emissions: Venting and Flaring

In addition to accidental, or fugitive emissions, there are a significant amount of purposeful emissions from oil and gas production in the form of venting and flaring.

Venting involves releasing gas directly into the atmosphere during normal operational extraction and handling. In the past, methane gas was considered a waste product of oil drilling, and was vented directly into the atmosphere in huge quantities. Between 1973 and 1989, an annual average of more than 130 billion cubic feet of natural gas was flared or vented during production. In addition, thousands of oil storage tanks also emit plumes of methane and other gases. In 2008, according to EPA’s estimates, the amount of natural gas vented and flared on onshore federal oil and gas leases totaled around 126 billion cubic feet (Bcf) of gas.

In some of today’s oil fields, like the Bakken in North Dakota, gas is still an unwanted byproduct that is vented rather than stored. This usually occurs in oil extraction areas that are not adjacent to gas pipelines.

Gas is also commonly flared or burned off. Flaring emits CO2 as a combustion by-product, while venting releases methane and other chemicals. In wells where oil and gas are co-produced, the “associated gas” is usually vented or flared off continuously. This flaring does not burn 100% of the gas, leading to VOC and methane pollution. In fact scientists are not sure how much residual methane and air contaminants escape from flares unburned.

In September 2011, the New York Times reported that every day, more than 100 million cubic feet of natural gas was being flared in the Bakken shale region. That flared gas also accounts for at least two million tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere every year, roughly equivalent to the emissions of a medium-size coal-fired power plant.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), as of 2011 more than 35 per cent of North Dakota’s natural gas production was burnt off in flares. In addition, there is very little oversight of venting and flaring in many U.S. production regions, and current industry reporting is not always reliable.

Other hydrocarbons and compounds that are present in vented and flared gas – such as volatile organic compounds – can harm air quality by increasing ground-level ozone levels and contributing to regional haze. For example, VOC pollution from the oil and gas industry has been a growing concern in Colorado, where Governor John Hickelooper and the oil and gas industry were forced to propose new regulations, because of high levels of air pollution from fracking. Ozone pollution from fracking in Colorado has become so bad that the air quality of the sparsely populate Front Range was as bad as Los Angeles.

Oilfield accidents, broken valves and gauges, and sudden pressure surges can also result in irregular releases.

Black Carbon

One associated greenhouse problem with flares is that they are also a global source of something called “black carbon”– a kind of particulate matter that also figures into the global warming calculus, though their role is not precisely understood. The action of black carbon is, like methane, a “short lived climate forcer.” Some scientists believe black carbon’s total effect in the atmosphere is likely to be second only to CO2. In 2011, the Arctic Council noted that gas flaring is a source of black carbon that “requires special attention,” and in March 2012, EPA reported to Congress that black carbon emissions from flaring were of “particular concern.” Comprehensive estimates of black carbon emissions from the natural gas industry do not exist.

LNG Exports

With the boom in U.S. shale gas production as one of the key drivers, the U.S. is gearing up to become a major exporter of natural gas. Many see the U.S., with its projected plentiful supplies of gas and a pipeline network that can move the gas to seaside locations for export, as well positioned to capitalize on the boom. Natural gas can be liquefied and compressed to liquified natural gas (LNG) for long distance transport to overseas markets by way of specially-equipped tankers. At the export sites, the gas must first be liquefied at specialized facilities, then shipped in tankers that store the gas at 260 degrees below zero. A number of companies are now seeking approval to export LNG from about 24 locations in the U.S. According to the Congressional Research Service, there have been 31 applications for U.S. LNG export permits. This potential export capacity represents nearly 50 percent of current U.S. production. Eight of the projects involve construction of liquefaction facilities at costs ranging from $6 billion to $10 billion each. New LNG export terminals would cost in the range of $20 billion each. As of September 2013, most of the projects have already received approval. Four others, with some limitation – Sabine Pass, Freeport, Lake Charles, and Dominion Cove Point – have received DOE approval to export to non-free-trade countries.

Industry analysts forecast that demand for LNG will more than double from about 240 million tons in 2012 to 550 million tons annually by 2030. Major oil and gas companies, including Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Total, are planning up to $400 billion in LNG investments around the world. ExxonMobil, for one, has been among American companies pushing DOE to speed up its approval of applications to export natural gas. ExxonMobil is also seeking a Canadian LNG export license for British Columbia. The American Petroleum Institute (API) has also urged DOE to speed up the pace of approving LNG export facilities. “There is a global race to build this infrastructure and secure a competitive position in the international market,” Erik Milito, director of the upstream sector for API, said in an October 2013 statement.

Cove Point, Maryland

In September 2013, the Department of Energy approved permits for a fourth LNG export facility at Cove Point, Maryland.  Situated on Chesapeake Bay, the Cove Point facility was initially opened in 1978 as an LNG import site. Dominion Energy wants to reengineer the plant to converted gas into LNG for export.  Opponents of the plant have raised concerns about related pipeline construction, increased demand for gas extracted by fracking in the region. A number of other U.S. LNG terminals – originally built to receive LNG imports – are also in the queue for permits to be modified for exporting LNG.

In the wake of the crisis in Ukraine, members of both parties and the Obama Administration supported expediting the approval of LNG export facilities as a national security priority.  On March 24, 2014, the Department of Energy gave preliminary approval to the seventh LNG export facility – the first on the west coast – the Jordan Cove terminal in Coos Bay, Oregon.

Among those on Capitol Hill supporting gas exports and calling on the Obama administration for faster approval of pending applications is Senator Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate energy committee, who has stated, “the United States has a narrowing window of opportunity to join the global gas trade.” Other lead proponents include Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chair Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), who introduced a bill (S. 2083) that would fast track LNG exports by automatically deeming LNG exports to WTO member countries in the public interest.


Rising methane emissions are also part of the LNG export equation, since the use of liquefied natural gas adds three additional stages to the natural gas life-cycle – liquefaction (where gas is cooled and pressurized), offloading and regasification (where LNG tankers offload their cargo) and transmission. In May 2013, offering congressional testimony, James Bradbury of the World Resources Institute explained: “The process of liquefaction, transport, and regasification of LNG is highly emissions-intensive, increasing by 15 percent the total life cycle GHG emissions associated with exported U.S. natural gas, compared to natural gas that is produced and consumed domestically. These added upstream emissions also significantly reduce the relative advantage that natural gas would have over higher-emitting fuels, like coal and oil.” In 2014, the Environmental Integrity Project estimated that of the 21 new LNG export terminals projected for development by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, 9 have obtained or applied for Clean Air Act permits that add up to 29 million tons of greenhouse gas emission per year – more than 3 large coal plants combined.

DOE Report finds LNG worse than coal

A recent DOE study of LNG exports facilities found that liquification and shipment of methane would be detrimental to the climate. The report found that benefits of cleaner, more efficient combustion of natural gas are largely offset by methane leakage in U.S. production and pipelines and by methane leaks and energy used in the process of liquefying and transporting the LNG. In the case of shipping LNG from the U.S. gulf coast to Shanghai, the greenhouse gas benefits could in some cases be completely offset by those factors when measured over a 20-year period, the report says.

U.S. exports of LNG to China could end up being worse from a greenhouse gas perspective than if China simply built a new power plant and burned its own coal supplies


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  • See
  • Michael Ratner, Paul W. Parfomak, Ian F. Fergusson, and Linda Luther, “U.S. Natural Gas Exports: New Opportunities, Uncertain Outcomes,” Congresional Research Service, Washington, DC, September 17, 2013.
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