EPA's methane crackdown wins endorsement from oil icon's Texas foundation

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration just won an unlikely ally in its push to slash methane emissions from oil wells and gas processing facilities.

The philanthropic organization that is a legacy of George Mitchell, the “father of fracking,” endorsed the proposal as a “prudent regulatory strategy.”

The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation’s move breaks with oil and gas industry leaders who say the rules would hike costs and throttle domestic energy development. 

The Environmental Protection Agency proposal “is a critical step in protecting health and the environment,” the group said in a statement released late Wednesday.

The Texas-based foundation has funded research on methane emissions, and one of its four main grant-making programs is in “shale sustainability,” supporting work with the potential to boost the sustainability of extracting oil and gas from dense shale rock formations.

But the foundation has never made such a big pronouncement on public policy — despite some requests to weigh in on other issues. 

Marilu Hastings, vice president of the foundation’s sustainability program, said the issue was so important leaders of the philanthropy felt it had to make a public statement. 

The statement reflects Mitchell’s belief that energy companies always have to “take it one step above,” and “operators have to push technology beyond where we are now,” Hastings said. 

Mitchell, who died in 2013, pioneered the combined use of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in North Texas’ Barnett shale, helping give birth to a domestic energy renaissance. Late in life, he devoted some of his wealth to scientific research and conservation. 

“He wanted to capture the full environmental, economic, health and national security benefits of natural gas as a fuel to produce power but (believed) it has to be produced in a responsible, prudent manner,” Hastings said. “And one of the ways we do that -- so it is a fuel that really has the environmental benefits that we want it to have -- is to manage methane responsibly.”

In its formal statement, the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation stressed that the oil and gas industry has already made “important progress” cutting emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere. And the foundation said the EPA’s proposal would dramatically expand the industry’s existing, voluntary work to find and close methane leaks.

Energy companies already have to use “green completions” technology on new and modified hydraulically fractured natural gas wells, under a 2012 EPA mandate. Other producers and pipeline companies have invested in monitoring technology and infrared cameras to help locate leaks.

But the foundation suggested that voluntary programs can only do so much — and they noted that much of the industry’s recent methane emission reductions have come as a result of the 2012 green completions rule.

“While some industry leaders are already implementing aspects of the proposed rules, the number of oil and gas companies that aggressively control their methane emissions must increase,” the philanthropy said. “The proposed rules, when finalized, will play a critical role in diffusing voluntary efforts and innovative technologies throughout the oil and gas industry.”

Although energy companies stopped short of endorsing the proposed rule, some have taken pains to emphasize their ongoing work to capture methane.

Houston-based Southwestern Energy said it is reviewing the proposed rules with an eye on ensuring they “provide sufficient flexibility to achieve meaningful cost-effective reductions.”

But the firm noted its involvement as a founding member of the ONE Future coalition — a group of eight firms that is working to identify policy and technical solutions for managing methane emissions.

“We are committed to continuous improvements and believe sound science leads to good policy,” Southwestern Energy said.

Cabot Oil & Gas stressed an ongoing, four-year campaign to slash methane emissions, crediting it with paring them by 85 percent through 2014 even as production grew 250 percent.

Related story: Cabot uses natural gas to power fracturing

Because the Houston-based firm has major gas production in the Marcellus shale formation its new gas wells are subject to the EPA’s 2012 green completions rule.

To minimize gas flaring at wells, the company built out its pipeline system and orchestrated its drilling program to follow the growth of that network, said Cabot spokesman George Stark.

Stark said the firm has engineered production sites with “enhanced emission controls” and has welded natural gas lines instead of using threaded connections to minimize fugitive emissions.

“All of these efforts were made to help us produce efficiently and effectively while capturing every methane molecule possible,” Stark said. “We don’t see the new rules altering our aggressive actions that have already produced a sizable reduction.”

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