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Oil and Gas: Federal Actions Needed to Address Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas Development

GAO-22-104759 Published: Apr 20, 2022. Publicly Released: May 20, 2022.
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Fast Facts

Methane, a greenhouse gas, is emitted during oil and gas production—either through intentional releases or leaks. It is also a lost source of revenue for the government when emitted from sources on federal lands. Methane emission rules are now being revised.

Some in the oil and gas industry are voluntarily reducing methane emissions, such as by using satellites to detect them, in addition to the EPA-required handheld devices. Well operators may seek EPA approval for detection alternatives, but few have. Some cited onerous burdens for approval.

We recommended that EPA give operators greater flexibility to use alternative technologies and more.

Satellite detection tools can show methane emissions

colorful digitized squares representing methane emissions in a satellite image

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) each issued regulations to reduce emissions of methane—a potent greenhouse gas—from oil and gas development. However, EPA and BLM encountered administrative and legal challenges in implementing them. For example, in 2016, EPA established national standards for methane emissions, but EPA repealed and curtailed those requirements in 2020. A June 2021 congressional resolution resulted in the reinstatement of the 2016 methane standards. EPA and BLM are in the process of developing proposed rulemakings to reduce methane emissions.

Several industry entities are voluntarily taking actions to reduce methane emissions, such as using aircraft and satellites to detect emissions (see fig.), in addition to the handheld devices required by EPA. However, few operators have applied to EPA for approval to use alternative technologies, which must achieve at least the same reduction in emissions as EPA's required technology. Representatives from some industry entities and stakeholders said they experienced challenges in meeting EPA's requirements, including that site-specific applications are time- and resource-intensive. Without greater flexibility in the process for approving alternative technologies, EPA may hinder the adoption of innovative approaches for detecting and reducing methane emissions.  

Technologies Used to Detect Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas Development Include Piloted Aircraft, Satellites, and Ground-Based Sensors

Technologies Used to Detect Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas Development Include Piloted Aircraft, Satellites, and Ground-Based Sensors

Selected states have regulations to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas development that exceed BLM's requirements. Historically, gas could be emitted into the atmosphere if the operator did not have the ability to capture it, but three states require operators to submit plans for capturing gas when applying for a drilling permit. Two of these states have enforceable targets for capturing gas. BLM does not require operators on federal lands to submit plans, due to legal challenges. In September 2021, BLM officials said that the agency is considering requiring waste minimization plans from operators but does not expect to include gas capture targets in the proposed rule. Without taking steps to require gas capture during production, BLM is potentially forgoing revenue from wasted gas, which contributes to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Why GAO Did This Study

Methane is emitted into the atmosphere during oil and gas production—either through intentional releases or leaks. These emissions also result in the loss of marketable natural gas. BLM oversees oil and gas operations on federal lands, and EPA regulates emissions from these operations.

GAO was asked to review methane emissions from oil and gas development on federal lands. This report (1) describes the steps federal agencies have taken to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas, and implementation challenges; (2) examines actions selected industry entities are taking to reduce methane emissions; and (3) examines how selected states regulate methane emissions and to what extent those efforts could inform federal actions.

GAO reviewed federal regulations and interviewed agency officials, industry representatives, and stakeholders, including environmental groups and academics. GAO analyzed documentation on industry efforts and reviewed academic studies, analyzed seven selected states' current and proposed methane regulations and interviewed officials from these states.

Recommendations

GAO is recommending that (1) EPA provide greater flexibility for operators to use alternative technologies to detect methane emissions; and (2) BLM consider whether to require gas capture plans similar to what states require, including gas capture targets, on federal lands. EPA and Interior concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Environmental Protection Agency The EPA Administrator should provide greater flexibility to operators for using alternative technologies to detect methane emissions. (Recommendation 1)
Open
EPA generally agreed with the recommendation. EPA stated that its November 15, 2021, proposed rule would allow operators greater flexibility to use advanced methane detection technologies to more frequently screen sites for large emissions, in addition to using EPA-approved technologies. On December 5, 2022, EPA issued a supplemental proposal that included strengthened standards for sources of leaks, greater flexibility to use innovative advanced detection methods, and the establishment of a super emitter response program. As of July 11, 2023, EPA was evaluating public comments on the December 2022 supplemental proposal and was expecting to issue a final rule by the end of 2023. When we confirm what actions EPA has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Bureau of Land Management The Director of BLM should consider whether to require gas capture plans that are similar to what states require, including gas capture percentage targets, from operators on federal lands. (Recommendation 2)
Open
Interior concurred with the recommendation. BLM stated that it is in the process of developing a proposed rulemaking that would require operators to submit waste minimization plans with every oil well application for permit to drill. The plans would provide BLM with information on anticipated associated gas production and the operator's capacity to capture that gas for sale or use. BLM stated that it did not plan to include gas capture percentage targets in the proposed rule, in part due to prior legal challenges. On July 11, 2023, Interior confirmed it completed the public comment period and has a target date of February 29, 2024 for drafting and publishing the final rule. When we confirm what actions Interior has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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Topics

EmissionsFederal landsFederal regulationsGreenhouse gasesNatural gasOil and gasOil and gas developmentOil and natural gasVolatile organic compoundsNational security personnel system