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Clearing the Air

Reducing Upstream Greenhouse Gas Emissions from U.S. Natural Gas Systems

This working paper focuses primarily on evaluating and reducing upstream methane emissions in the natural gas sector. We outline a number of state and federal policies and industry best practices to cost-effectively reduce fugitive methane emissions.

Key Findings

Executive Summary

While a shift in electric generation to natural gas from coal has played a significant role in recent reductions in U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, more will need to be done for the U.S. to meet its goal of reducing GHG emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. A related WRI report found that cost-effective cuts in methane leakage from natural gas systems are among the most important steps the U.S. can take toward meeting that goal. To achieve climate stabilization in the longer term, policies are needed to address combustion emissions through carbon capture and storage or by other means.

In addition to methane emissions, natural gas sector operations and infrastructure represent a significant source of CO2; volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are chemicals that contribute to ground-level ozone and smog; and hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). In 2012, EPA finalized air pollution standards for VOCs and HAPs from the oil and natural gas sector. These rules will improve air quality and have the co-benefit of reducing methane emissions. As discussed below, these standards can be complemented by additional actions to further reduce methane emissions, which will help to slow the rate of global temperature rise in the coming decades.

Fortunately, most strategies for reducing venting and leaks from U.S. natural gas systems are cost-effective, with payback periods of three years or less. The case for policy action is particularly strong considering that recent research shows that climate change is happening faster than expected. In addition, the projected expansion in domestic oil and natural gas production increases the risk of higher emissions if proper protections are not in place.

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