Do methane leak detection and repair programs reduce emissions? New research suggests yes.

Methane is the second largest contributor to climate change behind carbon dioxide, and last month the Environmental Protection Agency announced new regulations aimed at reducing methane emissions from US oil and gas operators. Instead, regulators will require companies to aggressively detect and repair leaks that allow methane to leak, efforts whose effectiveness, until now, has been difficult to measure.

A new study from the University of Harrisburg, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, suggests that leak detection and repair (LDAR) programs are highly effective in reducing methane emissions.

Andy Uhler from Marketplace spoke with Arvind Ravikumar, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the researchers behind the study, about his findings. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Arvind Ravikumar: We found the leak detection and repair programs used around the world to be very effective. So what we find is that while voluntary programs can reduce emissions, leak detection and repair programs and regulations can reduce significantly more emissions compared to any voluntary mitigation effort. And I think it’s very important to know, because this is the first time that we can show that these regulations are actually reducing methane emissions.

Andy Uhler: How much momentum do we have for these types of regulations? Is there a drive for this kind of thing? I don’t know if it is a type of federal regulation or what happens there.

Ravi Kumar: It is a federal regulation. The EPA has proposed draft regulations to address methane emissions from all oil and gas operations in the United States. One of the biggest challenges with methane, and we’re seeing it everywhere, is that methane emissions from oil and gas facilities are dominated by what we call “super emitters.” So the key to finding these super emitters is to find and repair them quickly. And in the last five years, we have seen important advances in the use of new technologies such as drones, airplanes, satellites and continuous monitoring systems to be able to detect these two parameters quickly and correct them. And I think that’s very exciting because if you look at the universe of all these new technologies, a lot of them are startups in the United States. So this isn’t just methane mitigation, it’s also a lot of well-paying local jobs in these communities that have these oil and gas operations going. So it’s great trying to address methane emissions.

Uhler: Is the conclusion of this document that we need to expand this LDAR program?

Ravi Kumar: The lesson from this document is that these LDAR programs are effective and we must expand them and use the right technologies in order to cost-effectively address methane emissions. But it’s not just that. For example, we find that not all sites are the same. We found that there are some sites and some types of equipment, such as tanks that store liquids and oil, are more likely to have methane emissions than other equipment or other sites, so targeting the ones most prone to emissions can also reduce and address quickly this problem. The other thing we are finding is that not all operators are the same. When we did this study, there were about 20 operators whose site we visited and measured, and we found a large difference in methane emissions between the operators. And this also provides some evidence for the current methane tariff discussions in Congress, where the goal is to differentiate companies by their specific methane emissions, so if there is a company that has lower methane emissions, it will face to a lower tax. And we found evidence that such a differentiated approach would really be helpful in the future.

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