New government report on natural gas waste outlines why the BLM methane rule is desperately needed— and quickly

A new report out by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) showcases just how badly the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) needs to revamp the way it monitors and permits methane waste on public lands.

Each year, upwards of $330 million worth of methane, the main component of natural gas, is wasted on our public lands when oil and gas producers vent, flare, and leak methane during production. What’s worse is that this figure does not include the royalties that would be assessed on the gas if captured and brought to market. That figure is estimated to be a whopping $800 million in unpaid royalties from methane waste over the next decade, if BLM does not update its way of operating.

The BLM intends to address those problems; earlier this year, it proposed rules to reduce venting, flaring, and leaks from oil and gas operations on public lands. Clearly a step in the right direction.

The GAO’s report examined two aspects of how BLM handles methane waste (or emissions): whether it can correctly account for how much methane is wasted from federal leases and how BLM field offices process requests from operators to vent and flare on federal leases. The BLM has not done either of these things very well, but their willingness to reform will go a long way.

This report has a few takeaways:

1) methane emission estimates from BLM lands are most likely grossly underestimated or at the very least not well known, and

2) field offices are failing to rigorously review venting and flaring applications and are granting permits anyway, many of which are royalty-free.

And there are a few reasons for these breakdowns. Over the past decade, the BLM’s budget has been cut repeatedly, resulting in vacant positions and overloaded field offices which face backlogs of venting and flaring applications. Also, production from oil and gas wells on federal leases account for 11% of our nation’s natural gas supply! Similarly, from 2007 to 2011 oil and gas production increased more than fivefold, putting additional strain on an already-overburdened system. Something had to give. And it did.

The BLM’s proposed methane waste rule would be helpful here in a few ways: the rule would update guidelines and set flaring limits, reducing the volume of venting/flaring application requests and the strain on field offices. The rule would also set clear, across-the-board rules for venting and flaring, instead of relying on field offices to assess individual operations.

And as it’s the BLM’s responsibility to ensure we receive our fair market value from the mining of our publically owned resources and prevent waste of resources mined on public lands, it’s about time the BLM updates its methane waste rules. These updated rules would benefit BLM’s field offices, the states that receive a portion of the royalties from oil and gas operations on federal lands, and the taxpayers who ultimately own the oil and gas minerals.

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