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EPA’s Methane Rule: All Burden for No Climate Benefit

By Steve Everley -- March 11, 2016

Between 2025 and 2100, EPA’s methane rule would result in a global average temperature reduction of just 0.004 degrees Celsius, four one-thousandths of one degree. Methane emissions ten times larger than what EPA data suggests would still not affect global temperature measurably.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed new rules targeting methane and other emissions from the oil and natural gas industry. The EPA claims these rules are necessary to “combat climate change,” but public data show that the climate impact of reducing methane would be practically non-existent: 0.004 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

Methane emissions from all industries in the United States only constitute about 10 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, which incorporates methane’s relatively high warming potential. According to the EPA and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), methane is about 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide.

In 2013, U.S. oil and natural gas systems emitted 232.4 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMT CO2 Eq.) of methane, or about one-third of total U.S. methane emissions.

The media has given us an endless supply of frightening headlines about methane, and drilling critics have done their part to gin up fear about yet another odorless and colorless gas. When you’re talking about millions of metric tons, it sounds enormous.

But is it? In 2013, total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were 6,811.1 MMT CO2 Eq, meaning emissions from oil and natural gas systems are only about 3.4 percent of all the greenhouse gases emitted in the United States.

According to calculations from Chip Knappenberger, the assistant director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute (a libertarian think tank), it takes roughly 1,767,250 MMT CO2 Eq. to raise global average temperatures by one degree Celsius.

The EPA’s plan is to reduce methane emissions from the oil and natural gas sector by 40 to 45 percent by 2025. Using 2013 data, that means EPA’s proposal would reduce methane emissions by 92.96 MMT CO2 Eq. each year starting in 2025.

Between 2025 and 2100, 92.96 MMT CO2 Eq. per year comes out to 7,064.96 MMT CO2 Eq. of total methane. By dividing that figure by 1,767,250 MMT CO2 Eq., we get a global average temperature reduction of just 0.004 degrees Celsius, or four one-thousandths of one degree. Knappenberger’s own calculations estimate the avoided warming from EPA’s methane rules to be even smaller: 0.002 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

The estimates described above are conservative, and likely represent an overestimate of the amount of methane that EPA’s rules would prevent from being emitted. But even if methane emissions were ten times larger than what EPA data suggest, the global temperature impact would still be effectively zero.

According to an analysis from National Economic Research Associates (NERA), EPA’s projected benefits from its methane rules are “highly uncertain and very likely overstated.” NERA, which has also conducted economic analyses for the U.S. Department of Energy, further noted that EPA’s figures “lack the appropriate peer review that is necessary for use in supporting regulatory policy.”

The total cost of EPA’s methane rules would be as high as $155 million in 2020, or about three times larger than EPA’s projected cost, according to NERA. An Energy In Depth analysis last year also identified the flawed basis on which EPA has proposed its new methane regulations, including inflated price estimates and emissions assumptions that are inconsistent with the agency’s own data.

EPA and its green defenders claim that new methane rules are necessary to address climate change. But it’s clear that EPA has failed to justify its latest regulatory assault on the oil and natural gas industry, especially when the data show the environmental benefits of its new rules are less than a rounding error.

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A version of this analysis first appeared at Energy In Depth.