Time for EPA to Come Clean on Methane

It’s only Wednesday and it’s already been a busy week on the issue of methane, a  greenhouse gas that’s like carbon on steroids and is released extensively in the production of fossil fuels:

  • There’s been ongoing coverage of our court victory last Friday overturning Arch Coal’s plans to expand its West Elk mine and in the process vent massive amounts of methane.  That ruling invalidated a U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management approval of Arch’s plans on the basis that the costs of carbon pollution, including the costs of venting methane gas, were ignored, a big victory for the climate.
  • And this week, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that newer gas wells being drilled into Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale are leaking more methane than wells drilled into other formations.  The study has major implications for shale oil and gas drilling and fracking across the nation, which is fast taking hold as the predominant form of oil and gas development.  Indeed, we just commented this week on the Bureau of Land Management’s plans to allow 5,000 wells to be drilled into the Niobrara shale formation of eastern Wyoming.


Methane venting well at Arch Coal’s West Elk mine in western Colorado (click to see more pictures of what methane venting at coal mines looks like, including this video of methane venting in action)

There’s a lot going on around methane, but what’s disturbingly not being discussed is how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (and apparently other federal agencies, for that matter) are downplaying, if not covering up, the climate impacts of methane emissions.

Certainly, everybody recognizes that methane is a potent greenhouse gas, but what seems to be obfuscated is exactly how potent it is.

The measure of a greenhouse gases potency is also called its global warming potential.  In the case of methane, the Environmental Protection Agency has for many years universally presumed a global warming potential of 21, meaning that for one part of methane equals 21 parts of carbon dioxide.  But studies are consistently confirming that this estimate is too low, particularly when assessing the short-term climate impacts of methane emissions.

In fact, while studies are finding that over a 100-year period, the global warming potential of methane is more than 30 times that of carbon dioxide, they’re finding that in the short-term, methane may be as much as 105 times more potent than carbon as a greenhouse gas.

More recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (often referred to as the IPCC), probably the most authoritative (even if somewhat cautious) scientific body that is synthesizing climate information for policymakers and the public, reported methane global warming potentials under two scenarios:  the first, where climate carbon feedback is not accounted for the second, where it is.  The climate-carbon feedback factor refers to the fact that as carbon creates more warming, more greenhouse gas emissions are released.  For example, as permafrost melts, more methane is released from Arctic tundra.

Taking into account climate-carbon feedback (which is more reasonable and accurate given the very real feedback impacts of greenhouse gas-fueled warming), the IPCC reported in their most recent synthesis of climate science that methane’s global warming potential is 34 over a 100-year period and 86 over a 20-year period (you can download their report at climatechange2013.org at p. 714).  Below is the table showing the IPCC’s reported global warming potentials.

Global Warming Potential Over 100 Years Over 20 Years
Without Climate-Carbon Feedback



With Climate-Carbon Feedback



In spite of these findings, the Environmental Protection Agency continues to assume that methane’s potency is only 21 times that of carbon dioxide.

For instance, in the agency’s latest inventory of greenhouse gas emissions and sinks in the United States, which was released in April and presents 2012 data, they rely on a global warming potential of 21 (see their Executive Summary at p. ES-3).  In doing so, they report that coal mines and oil and gas operations (the fourth and first largest sources of methane in the U.S., respectively) release the equivalent of 222 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (total of 10.57 million metric tons of methane).

Yet, based on a global warming potential of 86, total carbon dioxide emissions due to methane from coal mines and oil and gas operations is actually more than 900 million metric tons, a more than four-fold difference.  

The table below shows the differences between EPA’s estimate of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from coal mines and oil and gas operations, based on the outdated global warming potential of 21,  and estimates based on the IPCC’s global warming potential factors.

Methane and carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (in million metric tons) from oil and gas operations and coal mines, based on EPA’s 2012 inventory of greenhouse gas emissions and sinks, released in April 2014, and IPCC global warming potential factors.

methane and co2e emissions

What this shows is that the climate impacts of methane are being significantly underestimated, in turn giving the impression that methane emissions from coal mines and oil and gas sources are not significant sources of carbon.  In fact, just based on methane along, this data shows that oil and gas and coal mines are the fourth and fifth largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., right behind power plants, transportation, and industrial fossil fuel combustion.

Certainly, the Environmental Protection Agency has not outright discounted the significance of methane emissions from oil and gas operations, but they have refused to acknowledge that methane from coal mines is worthy of any agency attention.

And although the agency last fall officially raised the global warming potential of methane from 21 to 25, this is a far cry from reflecting the real short-term climate impacts of unchecked methane emissions.  Furthermore, in doing so, the agency rejected establishing a global warming potential based on a 20-year timeframe, essentially turning its back on the fact that methane’s climate impacts are more significant over the short-term, rather than the long-term.

By downplaying the climate impacts of methane, the Environmental Protection Agency is undermining the urgency that should be driving efforts to cut emissions of this potent greenhouse gas.  The result is that other federal agencies, the Bureau of Land Management notable among them, continue to drag their feet in acknowledging the need for methane reductions and the cost of delaying action.

With President Obama himself calling for methane cuts nationwide, it’s critical that the Environmental Protection Agency get it right in curbing this potent climate threat.

It’s About Time

That I posted something, yes.  The blog has been pretty dormant for a year or so now, but I’m going to try to pick things up again now and get the word out about what’s news in the American West when it comes to climate change.  And by the way, if you don’t already, follow me on Twitter @ClimateWest.

So what’s inspired this renewed commitment to the ClimateWest blog?  It was the news yesterday that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally proposed to issue a long-overdue air pollution permit for the Bonanza coal-fired power plant in northeastern Utah.

This is big news.  The 500-megawatt Bonanza power plant, with its 600-foot tall smokestack, has for years avoided complying with basic clean air standards.  Located in the high desert of the Uinta Basin in northeastern Utah, the plant’s owner, Deseret Power Cooperative, upgraded the plant to burn more coal in the early 2000’s.  More coal meant more pollution and under the Clean Air Act, that meant new emission controls were required to be installed.

Unfortunately, Deseret refused to install legally required pollution controls.  Even more unfortunate, at the time, the EPA condoned this.

WildEarth Guardians detailed these violations in a notice of intent to file suit against Deseret under the Clean Air Act in 2012.

The permit proposed yesterday will finally set things straight.  As EPA acknowledges, it made a mistake:

In carrying out our Title V permitting obligations, EPA has preliminarily determined that the PSD permit EPA issued in 2001 omitted certain PSD permitting requirements and that EPA failed to analyze and apply the PSD regulations correctly when issuing that permit. Among the requirements omitted was a Best Available Control Technology (BACT) analysis for NOx.

PSD refers to “Prevention of Significant Deterioration.”  It’s a key requirement of the Clean Air Act that says if you’re a big source of air pollution and you modify your facility and you increase your pollution, you’ve got to install best available pollution controls.  What EPA’s proposal means is that, finally, Deseret will finally install legally required clean air controls.

So how overdue is this action?  Technically, EPA was required to issue this permit in the early 1990’s, more than 20 years ago.  It was only after WildEarth Guardians sued the agency to compel them to meet their legal deadline that we have the proposal today.

It’s great news for clean air in the region.  While other coal-fired power plants in the west have had to make significant clean air upgrades, Bonanza has been given a free pass to pollute.  At long last, that’s slated to change.

And with clean air comes opportunity.  Facing the prospect of having to spend millions to upgrade the Bonanza plan, one has to honestly question whether Deseret is better off shuttering the plant and investing in cleaner, more affordable energy.

In the meantime, the proposed permit is out for public comment and the EPA has proposed a hearing in Fort Duchesne, Utah on June 3.  Stay tuned for more from WildEarth Guardians.

Bonanza Power Plant


UPDATE:  Unfortunately, EPA changed course when issuing the final permit for the Bonanza plant, eliminating any requirement that Deseret comply with the Clean Air Act.  Instead, EPA embarked upon a separate process to issue a “corrected” PSD permit, with no deadline for final action and no promise of real accountability.  On January 7, 2015, WildEarth Guardians appealed the EPA’s latest permitting decision to the Environmental Appeals Board.

ClimateWest Podcast: Thank you Western Colorado Jobs Alliance!

Listen to the latest ClimateWest podcast by WildEarth Guardians Climate and Energy Program Director, Jeremy Nichols.  Click below:

In this ClimateWest podcast, we give thanks to the Western Colorado Jobs Alliance and their success in bringing the name and work of WildEarth Guardians to so many in Colorado.  Despite their efforts to foment ire (and some pretty nasty phone calls) against WildEarth Guardians, their effort has actually led to more supportive calls, more donations, and more members.

Sure, we’ve gotten some angry phone calls that would make our grandmothers blush, but on the whole, wow.  We couldn’t have done more to get our work and our name out to so many people!

Check out their latest ad below, which we’ve heard has been running throughout Colorado, and you’ll see why so many people have responded by saying “Keep it up, WildEarth Guardians!”

Thank you to all who have taken the time to connect with WildEarth Guardians.  Your supportive calls mean more than you could ever imagine.

Listen and enjoy (and share with your grandmother, she’d definitely appreciate this more than she would some of the other messages we’ve received)!

The Forest Service Still Doesn’t Care (An Update and Lament)

I wrote last week about the Forest Service’s less than friendly response to public comments over a proposal to expand coal mining into western Colorado’s Sunset Trail Roadless Area.

As an update, the Forest Service did post an “edited” version of its response to comments on its website.  Amazingly though, many of the same snarky responses are still there (see p. 160, for example, where the Forest Service still tells the hunter to go take a hike).

As far as an apology, however, it appears as if the public shouldn’t expect the Forest Service to offer that any time soon.  Although the agency was kind enough to apologize for the “confusion,” they only described their nasty responses as “regrettable,” but apparently not worthy of an apology.

So it goes for an agency that seems hellbent on catering to big coal companies throughout the American West.  Not only is the Forest Service bending over backward to sacrifice undeveloped National Forest lands in western Colorado for more coal mining, but now they’re also signing off on coal strip mining in the Thunder Basin National Grassland of Wyoming.

That’s why WildEarth Guardians, with the help of students at the the University of Colorado Law School Natural Resources Clinic, today filed suit against the Forest Service, challenging the “South Porcupine” coal lease.  This lease would facilitate the expansion of Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle Mine, one of the largest coal mines in the world, in turn sacrificing 2,000 acres of the Thunder Basin National Grassland and leading to more than 500 million tons of carbon dioxide.

That’s on top of the more than 11.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide threatened by pending coal leases in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, which is where the Thunder Basin National Grassland is located.

And this from an agency that’s charged first and foremost with protecting public lands, not developing coal.

Insulting comments from the Forest Service are discouraging, but what’s more discouraging is an agency that puts the interests of coal companies ahead of our climate and our public lands.

100_3250Bear claw scratches on aspen in the Sunset Trail Roadless Area of Western Colorado.  Click here for more pictures of Sunset Trail.

An Update on North Dakota

Speaking of North Dakota, the state’s efforts to sabotage EPA’s clean air plan just got derailed in federal court today.

After EPA failed to meet its deadline to ensure North Dakota had a legally adequate clean air plan in place, WildEarth Guardians filed suit to enforce the Clean Air Act.  Ultimately, we reached a settlement that committed the EPA to taking action to adopt a clean air plan by late January 2012.

Earlier this month, the EPA proposed that clean air plan, promising major pollution cuts from several coal-fired power plants.

Not happy that the EPA was doing its job, North Dakota intervened in the lawsuit and tried to get it dismissed.  In a terse ruling today, Judge Christine Arguello approved the settlement and dismissed North Dakota’s efforts to undermine the EPA.

It’s good news for clean air and clean energy in North Dakota.

WildEarth Guardians and Moving the Planet

Hundreds of dedicated bike riders, mounds of creativity, and a vision of something better.

That was the Moving the Planet Ride this past September 24, 2011. WildEarth Guardians helped raise awareness over the impacts of fossil fuels in the Denver metro area and together with everyone else, helped call attention to one simple, immovable fact:  that global warming is this generation’s greatest challenge and that without action today, we stand to lose so much tomorrow.  Check out our photos and check out 350.org:

Moving Beyond Fossil Fuels

North Dakota Clean Air Plan Proposed

It’s out and it’s good.  Probably some room for improvement, but kudos to the EPA for following through with a comprehensive clean air plan to tackle air pollution in North Dakota.

Moose in front of Coal Creek coal-fired power plant in North Dakota (photo by Dennis Kost).