Kathleen Sgamma

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, testifies to a subcommittee of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON — A Colorado environmental official and an energy industry representative disagreed sharply at a hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday over a bill that would limit methane emissions at oil and gas drilling sites.

The bill, called the Methane Waste Protection Act (H.R. 2711), was introduced in May by Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat.

Methane is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a contributor to global warming, DeGette said during a hearing of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on energy and mineral resources. “But when it’s captured, methane can be used as a valuable resource,” she said.

Methane leaks from oil drilling sites because of the difficulty in capturing all of it.

DeGette’s bill would require oil and gas companies to capture 85 percent of all gases they produce at drilling sites on public lands within three years after the legislation is enacted and 99 percent within five years.

DeGette said a Trump administration proposal as recently as last month to ease regulatory restrictions on oil and gas companies could result in more methane being released.

“If allowed to go unchecked, [Trump administration environmental policies] will threaten our public health, exacerbate our climate crisis and waste some of our nation’s most valuable resources,” she said.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the trade group Western Energy Alliance, testified that the Methane Waste Protection Act and two other bills to more tightly regulate oil and gas companies would do more harm than good.

“Now Congress is considering legislation designed to decrease American production, not consumption, of oil and natural gas by adding more cost and red tape onto federal lands,” Sgamma said in her testimony. “Adding more cost has the same effect as taxes: if you want less of something, tax it more.”

The Denver-based alliance represents about 300 energy companies, many of them operating on federal lands that would be subject to the proposed legislation. They already are making great strides to reduce any negative effects of oil and gas drilling, Sgamma said.

“We continue a four-decade-long trend of reducing methane emissions by 14 percent even as production has skyrocketed over 50 percent for natural gas and 80 percent for oil,” Sgamma said.

She also warned about economic damage from putting a heavier regulatory burden on the industry.

“Through greater oil production, we’ve kept $350 billion from going overseas to unfriendly countries, enabling that wealth to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in the United States,” Sgamma said.

Methane is a hydrocarbon gas found in small quantities in Earth's atmosphere but larger quantities underground, particularly where companies drill for oil. Its flammability has made it the main component of natural gas used for home heating and cooking.

Colorado produced 116 million barrels of crude oil in 2016, making it the seventh biggest oil-producing state, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Other provisions would ban methane flaring at new wells and require oil and gas producers to report more information about gas leakage to the government.

John Putnam, director of environmental programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said Colorado has proven methane reduction and oil industry growth can be done at the same time.

Many provisions of DeGette’s Methane Waste Protection Act are modeled on legislation phased in for Colorado’s oil and gas industry since 2014, Putnam said at the congressional hearing.

He also said the bill is more urgent in Colorado than most places.

“Our state is particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change,” Putnam said. “Colorado is vulnerable to drought, wildfires, flooding and ozone exacerbation.”

He presented graphs showing that despite the state’s new restrictions on controlling gas leakage at drilling sites, natural gas production in Weld County increased from less than 70 million cubic feet in 2014 to more than 145 million cubic feet in 2018.

Oil production in Weld County increased by similar margins, according to state records.

However, emissions from the drilling sites fell by 70 percent during the same period, Putnam’s figures showed.

Other bills considered during the hearing would require oil and gas companies to reclaim more of the federal land they use, return more of their revenue from oil and gas extraction to the government and limit government liability for coal mining reclamation.

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