Jon Goldstein: The Fight To Reduce Methane Emissions

In discussions about climate change we talk a lot about carbon dioxide, and with good reason. But did you know that per molecule, methane actually traps more atmospheric heat than CO2? This week on Sea Change Radio, we are speaking with Jon Goldstein of the Environment Defense Fund to learn about the fight to regulate and reduce methane emissions. We look at data from his organization’s recent nationwide survey on oil and gas-related emissions, discuss potential benefits from the methane provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, and get an update on efforts to address leakage from old, abandoned oil wells.

00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:21 Jon Goldstein (JG) – Senators like Ben Ray Lujan from New Mexico and Senator Cramer from North Dakota saw this problem, and were successful in getting in to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Millions of dollars from the federal government to states to get these wells plugged. And so that’s work that’s going on right now is creating jobs in these communities cleaning up a source of pollution that have been sitting out there for far too long?

00:50 Narrator – In discussions about climate change we talk a lot about carbon dioxide, and with good reason. But did you know that per molecule, methane actually traps more atmospheric heat than CO2? This week on Sea Change Radio, we are speaking with Jon Goldstein of the Environment Defense Fund to learn about the fight to regulate and reduce methane emissions. We look at data from his organization’s recent nationwide survey on oil and gas-related emissions, discuss potential benefits from the methane provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, and get an update on efforts to address leakage from old, abandoned oil wells.

01:47 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Jon Goldstein. He’s the senior director of legislative and regulatory affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, the EDF. Jon, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

01:58 Jon Goldstein (JG) – Thank you for having me. Great to be here.

02:01 Alex Wise (AW) – So you and your team have been focusing a lot on methane emissions and tasked with trying to support regulations that will reduce methane emissions, EDF action and some of your partners just came out with a pretty wide-ranging poll in terms of geography, some pretty encouraging. Why don’t you share them with our list?

02:25 JG – Happy to, so yeah. So I work on reducing methane emissions from oil and gas development and that’s important because it’s such a powerful greenhouse gas. You know more than 80 times more powerful pound per pound than carbon dioxide in driving climate change in the short term. It’s also the primary component of. Natural gas, so you know methane when you stop a you’re doing good for the climate and you’re keeping more energy in in the pipe and you know, so it’s kind of a win-win and I think that’s reflected in this polling. Just did that shows really strong. Support for the efforts that the Biden administration, through the Environmental Protection Agency, are taking to try and get regulations in place nationwide to reduce methane pollution from oil and gas development. So what this poll found was that 68% of voters. Across battleground states. So these are places like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, you know the states that are you’re going to be watching on election night and seeing, you know, who’s going to win that that presidential election. 68% of voters in those states support the EPA’s proposal to put strong limits on oil and gas pollution, and that’s, I think, really interesting. We know a lot. We hear a lot about you. Know how divisive? Certain environmental issues are, and you know the  tripwires that they can cause with voters. The methane issue is one that we really see strong bipartisan support for, and that’s I think again, because of, you know, its climate benefits and the fact that, you know, you, you just can’t want to see American energy resources put.

04:14 AW – Ways, even in states that are strongholds of for the natural gas industry like Pennsylvania, you’ll see support. Do you think that’s because the populace there is wary of the methane emissions associated with natural gas, or is it something else at play?

04:30 JG – I think it’s a combination of factors. I think certainly they’re, you know familiar with the negative impacts that poorly done, poorly regulated development can have on air and on water and on, you know, the health of folks that that live in close proximity to these wells. And I think also you know, because of the energy Security benefits of limiting this waste and pollution. They can kind of see the upside for people close to home as well.

05:03 AW – So let’s break it down by state. There were some states like Pennsylvania, that’s a big battleground state, also a big natural gas producer. And then Texas, not as much of a battleground state, but we think of that as solidly red and a big oil state. Why don’t you share the data that came from those two states?

05:21 JG – Yeah, so, so in Pennsylvania specifically, 69% of voters supported the strong EPA safeguards that the agency is working on finalizing. So that’s very positive. And then, like you mentioned is obviously not a presidential battleground state but the largest oil and gas producer in the US. Yes, even in Texas, we see majorities – 58% of voters in Texas agree that EPA, for instance, should even go further in its proposal and really eliminate emissions from routine flaring at oil and gas wells, something that a lot of folks are hoping that EPA might improve upon when their rules finalize this fall.

06:03 AW – So from your team’s perspective, you kind of have to have an all out blitz to cover all the different tentacles that regulations will cover. You can’t just be lobbying the EPA, you also have to be aware of each state’s authorities and the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Interior. Can you explain where people who care about these regulations and care about their environmental regulations in their community and or in their country should be paying the most?

06:37 JG – There’s a lot going on in the methane space when it comes to oil and gas, and so those EPA rules are huge. This will be the first time that the federal government will be implementing comprehensive rules both for new wells and for the thousands and thousands of existing wells that are already out there at the same time. And so that will be incredibly important. That’ll be final this fall. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management is also finalizing a separate set of rules that are more focused on limiting waste. Those are also expected to be final this fall and are focusing on things like venting and flaring activities that happen at oil and gas wells that we want to see curtailed as much as possible. The BLM rules apply both on federal lands across the US and on tribal lands, and there’s certain tribes that are significant. Oil and gas producers, and we can dive more into that another agency at the federal level that’s working on a new set of rules is an agency called Fimsa, which is the federal has this materials agency, they regulate pipelines, they’re part of the Department of Transportation. They’re working on rules that would require folks to go out and inspect their pipelines for weeks on a frequent basis and get those leaks fixed when they find them. And then they’re also some, some separate rules from the Environmental Protection Agency that they’re working on establishing the first methane emissions reduction program, which was part of the inflation reduction. There’s going to be some further rules on that this fall, and they’re also updating the greenhouse gas reporting program to more accurately account for methane emissions. So we have a better sense of just how much is being polluted so that when that emissions reduction program comes into effect, we’re having accurate numbers to assess it on.

08:31 AW – Can you expand a little bit on the debate that’s going on with the methane emissions reduction program? It’s unique in that it’s not only measuring, but putting in a form of a carbon tax on a federal level. Has that been done before?

08:46 JG – No, this is actually the first. So this is the first time that the federal government will be working to put a price on a form of carbon pollution, in this case, methane. And that came as an act of Congress in the Inflation Reduction Act. So EPA is working on sort of the details of that program. But oil and gas producers, starting in a few years, once that program gets into play. It’s we’ll have to pay a fee or tax on excess emissions that that they’re putting out into the atmosphere. And so that’ll be a strong incentive to be cleaner and to reduce that pollution as much as possible.

09:26 AW – So Jon, you were talking about some of the activities that go on with some of these wells and pipelines and I’d like to break them down line by line. You mentioned venting and flaring before. What does that mean and how are you and your team trying to limit the negative effects of the practice?

09:46 JG – Right, so venting and flaring are practices that take place at oil and gas. It’s when you know, for instance, you know there could be an emergency. There could be a breakdown of a piece of equipment on the site that requires there to be, you know, someplace to send that gas for a finite period of time. Venting is what happens when that gas. This gets directly released to the atmosphere and obviously for folks that are concerned about climate change and other pollution impacts, that’s a not a great practice. Flaring is slightly better, but only in some ways slightly better. It’s when that gas is sent to a flare to become…

10:29 AW – …And that’s something that a lot of people who’ve driven by any refinery will see – it’s kind of striking.

10:39 JG – That’s right, an oil refinery is a great example of that. Also, if you live in the Permian Basin or you live in western, North Dakota, in the Bakken, you see these all the time at well sites where they’re flaring natural gas. It’s coming up with the oil and rather than getting it to market. And selling it as a commodity, they’re just burning it off. They’re treating it as a nuisance. It’s basically a market failure. The oil is the more valuable commodity, and so they’re investing in getting oil wells drilled, getting the oil to market. The natural gas that comes up with the oil is not as lucrative, and so rather than invest in the natural gas infrastructure, they are going to put that capital into drilling another oil well and another oil well and another oil well to maximize the return on their investment. That’s where there’s a role for regulation to step in, to correct that market failure. You know, just because it might not, you know, make every bit of economic sense from a return on investment and shareholder perspective, it’s still wasting energy resources that belong to the people of that state and to the US taxpayer and we want to see that flaring reduce as much as possible because it’s also a significant source of pollution.

11:58 AW – What are the alternatives to flaring?

12:01 JG – The best alternative is to get the gas to market, to put it into a pipeline that can put it to productive use. At the at the end of the day, for places where that’s just not possible, there are other ways to use it. You can use it for on site generation, generate electricity with it that you can use to power your well site which can lead to less pollution in the long term. There are even entrepreneurs that have come up with things like skid mounted fertilizer plants, you know, natural gas is one of the primary feedstocks for the fertilizer industry. And these guys are producing fertilizer on site. That, you know, obviously has a pretty good market in a place like North Dakota. That’s a that’s a big green basket for the country

12:52 (Music Break)

13:31 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Jon Goldstein. He is the senior director of legislative and regulatory affairs at the EDF, the environmental defense. So Jon, we were talking briefly about the methane emissions reduction program in terms of putting a price on carbon, but an element of that I imagine would have to be verifying the emissions that are coming from these places. Why don’t you tell us what’s going on the methane verification front, Jon?

14:01 JG – It’s a it’s an exciting area, so you know the what the science has shown is that the current greenhouse gas reporting program, the current inventory that EPA uses to try and assess how much methane is being emitted from the oil and gas industry. That’s based on modeling assumptions in on certain things for leaks. They don’t go out necessarily and measure all these leaks and then report them. They’re assuming how much is coming out and when you go out and you measure sites with scientific equipment and then you’ve put those in peer reviewed papers. And try and figure out what the real world numbers are, you find that EPA is undercounting with those modeling assumptions by about 60%, so they’re 60% off in their calculations. What EPA is doing at the federal level is to try and fix that problem to try and incorporate empirical scientific measurements into the greenhouse gas reporting program to make those numbers more accurate, that’s going to make the methane emissions reduction program more effective, because you’re actually assessing on the real impact, which is going to be, you know, very beneficial. They’re working on that right now, and states like Colorado are also similarly working on trying to get a better handle on what these numbers are of, you know, how many tons of methane are being emitted by the oil and gas industry. They’re working on a verification we’re making that recently got unanimous approval from the States Air Board with the support of environmental groups, industry and the state Regulatory agency, and they’re going to be developing A protocol this fall that will put a lot of the details into that program about how those numbers are collected and share.

15:52 AW – So you mentioned earlier how the methane emissions reduction program is getting finalized. But when you use that term final it, it scares me right now it’s final because there’s an administration in place that supports it. But what happens when that gets flipped on its head or the Senate flips, et cetera?

16:08 JG – Right, right. You know, we’ve certainly lived that over the past few election cycles, and I think what makes me optimistic about these rules are a couple of things: One, is the fact that this action from the environmental. The agency is based in part on a bipartisan act of Congress. So on a bipartisan basis, Democrats and Republicans voted on a resolution that invalidated the Trump era rules that were put in place that that were themselves trying to roll the clock back on. On Obama’s efforts on methane and directed EPA to put these rules in place for new and existing wells across the US so there’s bipartisan support from Congress for this effort. The other thing that makes me optimistic is we are seeing more and more oil and gas operators, large and small. Go on the record in support of federal action to reduce methane emissions, and I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is their investors are calling for it. They want to see them show their work and show that they’re actually producing a low carbon form of energy to the greatest system possible and not impacting local populations with pollution. Also, markets are calling for it. So we’re seeing efforts from the European Union, for instance, to start to look at requirements on imported energy and what it’s, you know, what its footprint is. And so that’s obviously a big export market for American energy. And as those requirements come into place, forward thinking companies are kind of looking around that corner and wanting to, you know, see rules that you know, give them an advantage in that kind of an environment.

18:05 AW – Could another element of their buy-in be that these oil and gas companies have seen the long-term writing on the wall for their main product, traditional main product in their portfolios have diversified over the last five to 10 years?

18:20 JG – I think that’s right. I think that’s certainly a part of it too. I think we’re seeing a lot of companies, Occidental Petroleum or Oxy is one example. You know their CEO likes to talk about how she considers them, not an energy company anymore, but more of a carbon management company. And I think they’re not alone in this.

18:39 AW – So Jon, you mentioned the tribal lands that a lot of oil and gas efforts are located. How does the EPA, BLM, what’s the difference between a tribal land and non-tribal land in terms of the regulatory approach?

18:57 JG – Tribal lands are very, very interesting, so I am a former state regulator. I worked in New Mexico at the state level for a number of years and so state level efforts like New Mexico has taken, for instance, to better regulate methane emissions from oil and gas develop. They apply on federal lands in New Mexico. They apply on state lands and private lands. They don’t apply on tribal lands because of tribal sovereignty, the EPA, the federal rules from the EPA, the federal rules from the Bureau of Land Management do and will, and so there’s benefits to tribes and tribal communities, and having those be strong to reduce pollution. The other thing that’s interesting is just like a state, a tribe can adopt that authority from the Federal Environmental Protection Agency to get their own rules in place and to regulate these pollution sources for themselves. We’re seeing that happening now with the Navajo Nation, which is the largest, you know, reservation in the US. It’s in the Four Corners area between New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. That tribe is in the process of getting delegated authority from EPA to regulate oil and gas on their lands for themselves, and in the meantime is supported. And strong efforts at the federal level to get these methane rules in place because of the benefit they see to their tribe.

20:30 AW – And we saw how the indigenous population really rallied together, and where were some of the strongest voices that kept the Keystone XL pipeline from expanding. What are some other examples of Native American tribes being the leading voices in these efforts to cut back emissions, Jon?

20:52 JG – The Navajo nation, I think is certainly one – they’re where they’re working on the methane issue and working to get that authority to do it themselves on their lands. Another are the Fort Berthold Reservation, the three affiliated tribes in North Dakota. That is right in the middle of the Bakken, which is a very active drilling area in western North Dakota and you know, members of that tribe were actually just in Washington a few weeks ago to meet with Interior Secretary Holland, in support of strong rules from the Bureau of Land Management on venting and flaring. So that’s another 1/3 is the Southern Ute tribe in Colorado, southwestern Colorado and the San Juan Basin. They are also working on efforts to try and get delegated authority. EPA to reduce methane emissions from the natural gas that’s developed on their lands.

22:04 (Music Break)

22:42 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Jon Goldstein. He’s the senior director of legislative and regulatory affairs at the EDF, the Environmental Defense Fund. So Jon, a lot of the issues stemming from natural gas and oil in tribal lands often goes back to water rights. There’s a big overlap, obviously there. How is that reflected in terms of federal regulations?

23:08 JG – Well, you know, there’s certainly a lot of effort that goes into preserving water quality when it comes to oil and gas drilling. If you don’t take care of your well properly, if you don’t manage the waste at the surface properly, you can negatively impact and pollute groundwater and surface water supplies, and that’s definitely a big issue at the federal level. It’s a big issue for tribes and for states for that matter.

23:39 AW – So abandoned wells, we’ve had a guest on before, Megan Milliken Biven, who is advocating for a federal agency, the Abandoned Well Administration, because there’s so many of these. Over 3 million defunct oil and gas rigs in states like Texas, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma that are still leaking a surprising and upsetting. Amount of methane, toxins, et cetera. That was a couple of years ago that we had Megan on. Why don’t you update us a little bit on what efforts are being made? I know there’s something built into the IRA as well – the Inflation Reduction Act.

24:13 JG – That’s right. Yeah. So this issue of orphan wells is a hot one. Now you’re right there are millions of these wells across the US these are wells that they did their job. They produced their energy resources for the decades that they were in production, and then rather than plugging them properly and making sure that they don’t in the future, impact water and air. The producer just walked away and left the state holding the bag, which is kind of the way the liability law works right now and the states don’t have the money on in hand to get these plugged properly and protect, you know, citizens from. So senators like Ben Ray Lujan from New Mexico and Senator Cramer from North Dakota solved this problem, and we’re successful in getting in to the bipartisan infrastructure law. Millions of dollars from the federal government to states to get these wells plugged. And so that’s work that’s going on right now, it’s creating jobs. In these communities. Cleaning up a source of pollution that have been sitting out there for far too long. Meanwhile, we’re hopeful about further efforts that can be taken to prevent this problem from happening in the future, and that will look like trying to update those liability requirements so that the feds and the states have money on hand in the form of bonds that they can call upon to get these wells plugged. In the future, if somebody tries to walk away.

25:44 AW – For somebody who’s listening, who cares about these issues, but it all is very complicated to them. They’re not experts like yourself. But if you were on vacation for a year, and then next summer, I know this sounds pretty good. And then next summer I said, all right, you could just go online for two minutes, Jon, and check out what’s going on in your space. What would be? Like the top topic that you would like Google, what would be your search term to find out what’s going on and what progress has been made? Like, what’s the what’s in terms of your own internal prioritization? Where are you most interested in seeing change being made in the regulatory space?

26:25 JG – That’s a great question. I think you know to put in a shameless plug. I would go to my organizations website and take a look there and see how we’re doing. I mean the by the administration has aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals from. Thing they want to see, you know, significant cuts in oil and gas, methane within the next few years. We are also posting our own data to see how they’re doing and I’d want to go and see and check that work. The other thing that’s going to happen in the coming year is we’re going to be launching. A methane satellite called Methane Sat. And that’s going to be launched early next year. And I’d want to see what we’re, what we’re finding from that and look at the data around the world from you know, so we have a somewhat of a sense of what’s going on in the US.

27:17 AW – When you say we is that the US launching it or is the Environmental Defense Fund launching it?

27:22 JG – The Environmental Defense Fund, my organization is launching it. It’s the first time a nonprofit is launching a satellite, so this will be free and open to the public. The data will be posted online for folks to see, and it won’t just be looking at the US, it’ll be looking all around the world so you know some places that maybe don’t do such a great job of sharing data like Russia for instance. We’ll be able to see what’s what are the methane emissions that’s coming from.

27:53 AW – He is the senior director of legislative and regulatory affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, Jon Goldstein. Jon, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:02 JG – Thank you, Alex, it’s great to be here.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by The Band and Robbie Robertson. To read a transcript of this show, go to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others, and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.