Unlikely ally endorses the administration's methane reduction plan

WASHINGTON — In its push to slash methane emissions, the Obama administration has an unlikely ally — the philanthropic organization that is a legacy of Texas oil man George Mitchell.Breaking with oil and gas industry leaders who say the proposed methane rules would hike costs and throttle domestic energy development, the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation this week endorsed the Environmental Protection Agency proposal as “prudent regulatory strategy.”

Mitchell, who died in 2013, is known as the “father of fracking” for his pioneering combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in North Texas’ Barnett shale. The technology has since been at the heart of a domestic energy renaissance. Later in life, he devoted some of his wealth to scientific research and conservation.

The Texas-based foundation named for him and his late wife said in a statement released recently that the EPA proposal “is a critical step in protecting health and the environment.”

The foundation has funded research on methane emissions, and one of its four main grant-making programs supports 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 is so important that the philanthropy felt it had to take a public stand reflecting Mitchell’s philosophy.

“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 that includes managing methane responsibly.

In its formal statement, the foundation stressed that the oil and gas industry has 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 expand the industry’s existing, voluntary work to find and close methane leaks.

Under a 2012 mandate, energy companies already have to use technology called “green completion” on new and modified hydraulically fractured natural gas wells. 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 foundation 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. 

Some energy companies noted their involvement as members of the ONE Future coalition — a group of eight firms working to identify policy and technical solutions for managing methane emissions.

But a late 2014 investigation by the San Antonio Express-News showed that flares in the South Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale burned more than 20 billion cubic feet of natural gas and released tons of pollutants into the air in the first seven months of 2014 — exceeding the total waste and pollution for the entire year of 2012.

Methane is the key component in natural gas.

Later records analyzed by the San Antonio Express-News show that flaring in the oil patch had continued to increase in the Eagle Ford.

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