Natural gas industry says no need for state methane emission regulation

Report on feasibility of state methane reduction goals due to General Assembly July 1

By: - May 18, 2023 12:04 am

Natural gas meter with pipe on wall. (Getty Images)

Members of Virginia’s natural gas industry say there’s no need for the state to impose its own regulations to reduce emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that can leak from gas pipes and is a significant contributor to climate change.

Methane reductions “are likely to be accomplished through the upcoming federal rules,” said Stephen Holcomb, director of environmental policy and sustainability at NiSource, a natural gas company that provides service in the commonwealth through subsidiary Columbia Gas of Virginia. “That’s why, at this time, we do not support additional state methane regulation on the natural gas industry.”

Holcomb’s remarks were made May 11 during a meeting of a working group put together under a 2022 state law to determine whether it’s feasible for Virginia to set methane reduction goals and craft a plan to meet them. 

That group, which has held one meeting since the passage of the law and is expected to provide recommendations to the state Department of Environmental Quality for a report due July 1, stopped short of setting any specific reduction targets or defining what “feasible” means.  And while industry members argued Virginia regulations are unnecessary, environmental groups said state rules could fill in any gaps within federal proposals.

“We would certainly support a methane reduction goal in Virginia,” said Greg Buppert, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. 

Braven Beaty, an ecologist with the Nature Conservancy, warned that “to put it off, kick the can down the road entirely until some in-the-works federal reg[ulation] may change or come about is too uncertain.”

Methane, a primary component of natural gas, is the second most abundant greenhouse gas on the planet, behind carbon dioxide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Although not as prevalent as CO2, methane is 25 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

As concern about climate change has grown, federal regulators have increasingly looked to reduce methane emissions.

This November, the EPA proposed new regulations requiring existing oil and gas facilities to track and fix methane leaks from wells and compressor stations. Additionally, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, this month proposed stricter rules that would require pipeline operators to install advanced methane leak detection technology, report smaller leaks, minimize intentional methane releases and plan for more timely leak repairs. The agency said the changes could eliminate up to 1 million metric tons of methane emissions in 2030 alone, the equivalent of 25 million metric tons of CO2 or emissions from 5.6 million gas-powered cars. 

With the PHMSA rules expected to go into effect in August, gas industry representatives have argued they are already doing enough to reduce emissions. Holcomb said the industry has reduced its emissions in Virginia by about 70% since 1990. He also pointed to a 2017 state methane inventory that found methane emissions from natural gas systems were responsible for only 2% of Virginia’s total methane emissions — “a portion that is declining,” he added.

A pie chart from a 2019 Department of Environmental Quality workgroup showing the 2017 percentages of sectors contributing to methane emissions in Virginia. (Courtesy of Department of Environmental Quality).

More recently, the industry has looked to biogas — a form of methane gas made from waste — as a way to reduce emissions. This March, the Virginia State Corporation Commission approved Roanoke Natural Gas’ plans for a biogas facility that the utility says will reduce emissions, though critics question the accuracy of the company’s estimates. 

“We’re installing things that we’re not going to get a payback [on] anytime soon because we want to minimize our emissions as much as possible,” said Jeff Zehner, environmental manager at Berkshire Hathaway Energy, a holding company for almost a dozen utilities. “That would have never happened 10 years ago. That’s just something that wouldn’t have been installed.”

But environmental groups said state rules could still address issues not resolved by new federal regulations. 

The gas industry comprises three main sectors: upstream, which focuses on extraction; midstream, which is concerned with processing and treatment; and downstream, which focuses on the distribution of gas to customers. 

A representation of the different sectors of the natural gas industry. (Courtesy of Department of Environmental Quality).

While methane leaks can occur from infrastructure in any sector, environmental groups said the EPA proposal focuses most heavily on the upstream segment, meaning Virginia could focus on the distribution side. Recent reporting by The Richmond Times-Dispatch found the city of Richmond’s gas system has about 870 known leaky pipes, and 14% of the system’s gas leaked into the atmosphere in January 2022.

“We know a lot of those investments in technologies to identify leaks, repair leaks are really cost-effective,” said James Bradbury of the Georgetown Climate Center. “The strategies that are needed to mitigate methane leaks from this sector are very well-known, very well-understood. The technologies are improving all the time. I feel really confident that this is a really solvable problem.”

Virginia regulations could also focus on reductions from other sources besides pipes, such as landfills, the agricultural sector and coal mines, said members of the work group. And, added Andres Clarens, associate director at the University of Virginia Environmental Institute, it could consider the impact of emissions on human health and environmental justice communities.

“It would be helpful if the report contained some discussion about whether it was feasible to set a goal in specific sectors, and if so what type of goal we ought to have,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, the Senate sponsor of the 2022 legislation. “There’s probably a way to measure the reduction of methane from landfills, from sewage treatment plants, from agriculture, but some of the other places to reduce methane are a little more complicated.”

Attempts to reach the House sponsor, Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, were unsuccessful.

Debate about how Virginia should address methane emissions isn’t new. The Department of Environmental Quality convened a work group in 2019 to consider the creation of regulations to limit methane emissions from natural gas infrastructure. Ultimately, the group decided to wait for the EPA to put forward a regulatory proposal before taking any action. In the meantime, its mandate expired, leading to the provision in the 2022 law re-creating it. That legislation took effect in July of last year. 

With the first meeting of the reconstituted body occurring this May and a report due to the General Assembly July 1, Surovell said it “seems like they waited an awfully long time to start working on this.” 

DEQ spokesperson Aaron Proctor said the current group contains many members of the first methane work group that met four years ago.

“DEQ will also be considering the information generated by the first methane workgroup,” Proctor said. “Keep in mind that nearly all the stakeholders on the workgroup that met last week were also members of the first workgroup and have been discussing the issues related to methane among themselves and with DEQ since 2019.” 


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Charlie Paullin
Charlie Paullin

Charles Paullin covers energy and environment for the Mercury. He previously worked for Northern Virginia Daily in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and for the New Britain Herald in central Connecticut. An Alexandria native, Charles graduated from the University of Hartford initially wanting to cover sports. He's received several Virginia Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, local government and state politics.