On methane, Alaska tells feds to clean up their act first

The Interior Department has proposed new rules aimed at reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.

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Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and oil and gas production is a significant source. The Obama Administration wants to cut methane emissions from the industry by 45 percent within a decade.

The proposed new rules won’t have much impact in Alaska. They apply to operations on federal land, while the vast majority of drilling here takes place on state land.

Cathy Foerster, chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said the state already has this issue under control.

“Every month, every operator has to account to my agency for every puff of gas they produce,” she said.

Foerster estimated that methane emissions total about 0.5 percent of the natural gas produced in the state. That’s about as good as it gets in oil and gas production, she said. Still, it adds up.

“At Prudhoe Bay they produce 8 billion cubic feet a day, so less than one half of one percent of a big number is a big number,” she said.

Meanwhile, Alaska officials would like the federal government to clean up its own act.

The Department of the Interior still hasn’t dealt with the so-called legacy wells drilled on federal land decades ago – including one that has been leaking methane for years.

“My agency and the Alaska Legislature have made a concerted effort to force the Department of Interior to hold itself to the same standards it holds industry to,” Foerster said.

That may finally be happening. In 2013, Sen. Lisa Murkowski secured funding to clean up some of the legacy wells. Foerster said the Bureau of Land Management expects to deal with the leaking well this year or next.

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Rachel Waldholz covers energy and the environment for Alaska's Energy Desk, a collaboration between Alaska Public Media, KTOO in Juneau and KUCB in Unalaska. Before coming to Anchorage, she spent two years reporting for Raven Radio in Sitka. Rachel studied documentary production at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and her short film, A Confused War won several awards. Her work has appeared on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace, among other outlets. rwaldholz (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8432 | About Rachel