In the race to head off the most dangerous impacts of climate change, a solution to the methane emissions problem is lagging. Although carbon dioxide is a major source of air pollution from power plants that burn coal or natural gas, methane—the main component of natural gas—is a more potent climate change contributor over the short term than CO2. A halt to the release of raw methane from oil and gas operations is critical to combating global warming. The Obama administration in January set an aggressive methane reduction goal of achieving a 40 to 45 percent decrease in oil and gas methane emissions from 2012 levels by 2025. In support of that target the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed new methane pollution regulations for the oil and gas industry. Yet it remains unlikely that the nation’s natural gas industry will plug all of its methane leaks anytime soon.

On the surface, control of methane emissions seems like an easy, win–win proposition: Oil and gas companies capture lost product, thereby yielding more to sell, while also combating climate change. That victory, however, remains out of reach. Although cheap and simple technology exists to prevent many methane leaks, its use is insufficiently widespread to eliminate the problem. And a slow regulatory process, disagreements over the best approach for methane capture and a number of technical factors are holding back more comprehensive action.

The EPA’s proposed regulations released last month are an important step toward dealing with the methane issue but they will not be finalized until mid-next year at the earliest. Even then additional regulations will need to be crafted in order to fully address the problem. This lag is unavoidable because the EPA rules proposed in August only cover new sources of methane emissions, meaning any wells, pipelines or other infrastructure that are built going forward. Existing oil and gas equipment—which accounts for the lion’s share of total industry-related emissions—is unaddressed by the proposed rule. Yet, 90 percent of methane emissions from natural gas are expected to come from existing, not new, sources over the coming years, according to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

The EPA acknowledges this shortcoming and already is working with industry on a voluntary reduction agreement to tackle existing sources of methane emissions, says Laura Allen, an EPA spokesperson. Feedback currently is being sought on a framework for a flexible project, called the Natural Gas STAR Methane Challenge Program, that could cost-effectively address existing methane emissions sources while providing transparency into company-level progress on the issue, she says.

The oil and gas industry favors that kind of collaborative approach to address both new and existing methane emissions sources over enforceable regulations. Industry argues it is doing a good job reducing methane emissions on its own and says additional regulations are not required even for new emissions. “The [emissions] reductions [to date] were achieved collaboratively with an existing regulatory framework,” says Dan Whitten, a spokesperson for America’s Natural Gas Alliance. “We are disappointed that EPA did not choose to continue that collaboration [for new emissions], and instead proposed unnecessary and counterproductive regulatory mandates.”

Still, some experts maintain that voluntary programs are insufficient. “It’s clear that voluntary programs, although an important complement to regulations, are not a substitute,” says Mark Brownstein, vice president of the EDF’s Climate and Energy Program. “In order to reach the national goal some combination of federal and state rules will be required.” The environmental community argues that too few companies will participate in a voluntary emission-reduction arrangement to make a difference. So regulations are required to ensure the most effective results. Even if the industry supported additional regulation—which it rarely does— it would take precious time to draft, perfect and finalize any new rules for existing sources.

Meanwhile, although tools to fulfill any state or federal regulations, including the new EPA rules, already exist, technical limitations prevent them from being applied to every methane leak. Recent research has shown that leaky long-distance transport pipes and equipment are a major source of emissions. Indeed, some have called methane generated from oil and gas operations a plumbing problem that can be mitigated to a large extent using existing technology.

The installation and maintenance of vapor recovery units, for instance, could go a long way to addressing the methane emission issue at both new and existing oil and gas facilities. Such units can collect 95 percent of the vapors from storage tanks that would otherwise be released directly to the atmosphere.

Leak detection and repair technology is also particularly effective at identifying specific points along the oil or gas supply chain, from the field to consumers, where methane escapes. Research indicates that quarterly programs where technicians inspect infrastructure using infrared cameras and sensors could reduce methane emissions by roughly 60 percent. Monthly inspections could achieve methane emission reductions of 80 percent. Research has also shown this technology to be affordable, particularly because the captured methane can be sold rather than simply wasted. Some relatively simple fixes can both improve profits—and clean up the air.

Source: ICF InternationalEconomic Analysis of Methane Emission-Reduction Opportunities in the U.S. Onshore Oil and Natural Gas Industries, March 2014.

Although the cost of this technology appears manageable, technical barriers currently prevent its rollout across a company’s whole operation, which can often span several states. A lot of oil and gas infrastructure is located in remote or rural locations where there is no access to the electricity needed to power VRUs or infrared cameras. Additionally, rig-mounted equipment such as infrared cameras or sensors require some degree of customization because every rig is slightly different.

Progress has been made on the oil- and gas-related methane emissions issue in a relatively short time but work on a comprehensive solution continues. The main ingredients are at hand and now the challenge will be striking an optimal balance of regulation, voluntary industry participation and technical means in fairly short order before the most dangerous climate change impacts are realized.