Oregon has become increasingly dependent on natural gas to power homes and buildings. But that may have to change, following the Biden administration’s announcement at a global climate summit that it wants to sharply cut emissions of this potent greenhouse gas by tens of millions of tons by 2035.
The announcement, made at the COP26 gathering in Glasgow, Scotland, casts a spotlight on a greenhouse gas that gets far less scrutiny than carbon dioxide, which escapes from burning gasoline, diesel and coal. Natural gas is primarily methane. It’s become one of Oregon’s fastest growing sources of energy. The state’s natural gas capacity has tripled over the past decade. Power from natural gas-fired energy plants made up 28% of the state’s electric generation and supported 21% of the state’s energy consumption in 2018.
Oregon uses a lot of natural gas, but supplies very little of it, instead bringing it in via pipeline from the Rocky Mountains and elsewhere. Pipelines are the subject of a new rule announced Tuesday by the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency said the new rule would focus on reducing methane leaks and other pollution from new and modified oil and natural gas sources, including pipelines.
Once the proposed rule is in place, it could affect Oregon’s three interstate pipelines. Those are the Gas Transmission Northwest, Northwest Pipeline and Kelso-Beaver Pipeline.
“It’s a little bit of a wait and see. Oregon has relatively little of the infrastructure that the EPA rule covers,” DEQ’s Communication Manager Harry Esteve said.
The EPA is looking at other sources of methane pollution and additional regulations that could be ready by the end of next year to further curb emissions.
Climate Solutions’ Oregon Director Meredith Connolly called the Biden administration’s new rule a huge first step. But one of her biggest concerns is gas leakages that come from gas powered appliances found in homes, like gas stoves and furnace systems.
“Even small leaks of methane are incredibly potent and harmful,” she said.
According to a 2020 report by the Gas Index, Portland ranks above average among major U.S. cities when it comes to natural gas leaks. Methane radiates 28 to 36 times more global warming potential energy per ton in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, according to the Oregon 2020 Biennial Energy Report.
Connolly said an easy fix to reduce methane leaks in the state is to continue to transition from natural gas-powered appliances to electric ones and to figure out a way to incorporate that when it comes to building new homes and buildings.
“We have those technologies. We have electric cars and electric trucks. Trimet is going to all electric buses,” she said. “These are the solutions we need to take on and the next big fight and focus is really our built environment.”
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality adopted new requirements this year for natural gas utilities like NW Natural— to monitor, quantify and report methane emissions associated with their gas distribution systems.
NW Natural is the largest natural gas utility company in Oregon that provides natural gas to approximately 2.5 million people in Oregon and southwest Washington. A spokesperson for the company said they are looking forward to reviewing the EPA’s proposal. The company claims it has one of the most modern pipeline systems in the country and has replaced older pipes with new materials to make their system tight.
DEQ’s Esteve said the agency isn’t just looking at natural gas infrastructure for methane emissions reductions.
“Looking down the road even though landfills aren’t subject to this rule, potentially they could be, recently DEQ adopted and began implementing new regulations on methane that come from landfills,” Esteve said.
Esteve said those rules are the most stringent in the nation for monitoring and capturing methane from landfills and it’s aligned with California’s rules. Methane emissions from landfills have 25 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide.
Other areas of huge concern that produce methane include the agricultural sector. A greenhouse gas emissions report completed by DEQ in 2017 found, 9.1% of GHG emissions were attributed to agriculture.