The Environmental Protection Agency recently released a much-anticipated report on greenhouse gas emissions. It contains some great news. Between 2015 and 2016 — the last year measured — U.S. emissions dropped 1.9 percent.
Unfortunately, it also contains some bad news. Today, Americans spew more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than they did a generation ago. From 1990 to 2016, total emissions rose 2.4 percent.
Environmental activists warn that America must drastically cut emissions to stave off the worst effects of climate change. They want to restrict oil and natural gas exploration, which they blame for rising emissions.
Such restrictions would be completely counterproductive. The oil and natural gas industry deserves much of the credit for the recent drop in emissions.
It’s a myth that oil and natural gas companies are big polluters. According to the EPA’s own data, energy production activities like “fuel extraction, refining, processing, and transportation” accounted for only 10 percent of total emissions in 2010. The agriculture and transportation sectors accounted for 24 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
Admittedly, the report shows that emissions from some drilling-related activities increased. In particular, total carbon emissions from petroleum drilling skyrocketed from 3.6 million metric tons in 2015 to 28.8 million metric tons in 2016.
That’s a worrying jump. Fortunately, a closer look at the report’s fine print reveals the spike is due to a methodology change.
Here’s what happened. When companies first drill an oil well, they often harvest some natural gas as a byproduct. To prevent pressure from building up to dangerous levels, companies burn, or “flare,” this natural gas. Flaring is actually more environmentally friendly than letting the natural gas escape straight into the atmosphere.
In previous versions of the EPA report — formally known as the “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks” — officials categorized flaring emissions from oil wells as natural gas emissions.
This year, they classified those emissions as oil-related emissions, since they come from oil wells rather than natural gas wells. The recategorization makes it seem as though oil drilling became vastly more emissions intensive. In reality, the spike was largely artificial.
The report shows that, on the whole, the oil and natural gas industry helps to reduce emissions. Between 2005 and 2016, total greenhouse gas emissions dropped 12 percent and power plant emissions dropped 25 percent. Meanwhile, U.S. natural gas production jumped 50 percent.
That’s no coincidence. The EPA notes that the reduction in total emissions between 2015 and 2016 was driven, in part, by the “substitution from coal to natural gas consumption in the electric power sector.”
Natural gas is a much cleaner — and cheaper — fuel than coal. It produces half as many carbon emissions. From 2007 to 2012, power plants reduced U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 800 million tons by replacing coal with natural gas.
That’s the equivalent of taking 26 million cars off the road.
Natural gas producers are making a concerted effort to safeguard the environment. Twenty-six energy companies have joined together to launch a partnership focused on reducing emissions. That includes programs to prevent leaks from natural gas and oil wells and to install emission-free technology at natural gas drilling sites.
Last November, eight large energy companies signed an agreement with the International Energy Agency pledging to help reduce methane emissions.
The EPA’s new emissions report reveals the oil and natural gas sector, far from harming the environment, is actually helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Drew Johnson is a senior scholar at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.