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BLM Agrees to Consider Effect of Oil and Gas Leasing in Montana on Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The Bureau of Land Management has signed a settlement agreement in which it agreed to “suspend” oil and gas leases covering BLM lands in Montana until it has completed a review of the effect of oil and gas development on greenhouse gas emissions.

The settlement was entered in Montana Environmental Information Center, et al. v. United States Bureau of Land Management, Case No. 08-178-M-DWM, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, Missoula Division, on March 11, 2010. The case was brought by citizens groups who contended that federal law required the BLM to consider the cumulative impacts of oil and gas development on the environment, and specifically the greenhouse gas emissions caused by oil and gas well drilling and production, before granting oil and gas leases on lands in Montana.

The plaintiffs’ petition contains some interesting facts:

The State of Montana published a Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory and Reference Case Projections 1990-2020G, in 2007; it estimated that oil and gas operations in Montana released 4.7 million metric tons of CO2 or its equivalent in 2005, more than 12% of the state’s total GHG emissions.

According to the Inventory of U.S. GHG Gases and Sink: 1990-2006, by the Environmental Protection Agency, oil and gas systems are the largest human-made source of methane emissions and account for 24% of methane emissions in the U.S. – 2% of the U.S.’s total GHG emissions. (Methane – natural gas – has 21 times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide.)

The EPA has a program called the Natural Gas STAR Program, designed to encourage oil and gas companies to voluntarily reduce their GHG emissions by following GHG reduction technologies and practices. EPA reported that industry partners in its STAR Program achieved GHG emission reductions totaling 92.3 billion cubic feet. This is equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from approximately 6.8 million passenger vehicles.

Companies producing oil and gas have reported success in utilizing a number of methane reduction measures, including replacement of high-bleed pneumatic controllers with low-bleed pneumatics, installing plunger lifts, using “green” completions (not venting gas produced during completion operations), replacing gas-actuated pumps with solar electric pumps, and utilizing vapor recovery units (devices that capture vapor emitted from storage tanks and recycle it back into the production stream), and conducting regular inspections of facilities to identify and reduce fugitive leaks from valves, flanges and other connectors.

We may expect that federal agencies like the BLM and the Minerals Management Service, who are responsible for leasing of federal lands, will move toward imposing requirements on oil and gas operators to reduce their GHG emissions by using best available technologies like those enumerated in the plaintiffs’ petition in this case. Those same technologies could be used to reduce emissions in and around the Barnett Shale, where residents are increasingly complaining about emissions from oil and gas compressors and other facilities.

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