Reitze explores methane and emissions from oil and gas operations in new research

University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law Professor Arnold Reitze explores methane and emissions from oil and gas operations in new research —a topic of particular importance in Utah, which struggles with an air pollution problem during winter inversion months.

Reitze’s article, “The Control of Methane and VOC Emissions From Oil and Gas Operations in the Western United States,” will be published in the Idaho Law Review in coming weeks.

Reitze joined the S.J. Quinney College of Law in 2008. He is also the  J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Professor Emeritus of Law of the George Washington University School of Law and was the director of their LL.M. program in environmental law from 1970–2008.  At the S.J. Quinney College of Law, Reitze teaches environmental law and seminars in climate change and current issues in environmental law. He is a member of the University of Utah’s Institute for Clean and Secure Energy and of the Utah Air Quality Board.

Professor Arnold Reitze

He spoke to the College of Law about his new research in a Q&A.

Q:  Describe your latest research. What made you want to explore this particular area?  

A:  My latest article is “The Control of Methane and VOC Emissions From Oil and Gas Operations in the Western United States.” It deals with two important air pollutants—methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are chemically reactive hydrocarbons that have been the target of air pollution control programs for more than half a century. They are regulated because of their role in creating photochemical oxidants, which is commonly known as smog. Methane is a nonreactive hydrocarbon that until recently has largely escaped regulation although it is a potent greenhouse gas that is contributing to climate change. Both pollutants have become the subject of more focused concern in the western states because they are emitted in large quantities from the regions greatly expanded oil and gas production. Northeastern Utah in particular faces designation by the EPA as a nonattainment area for ozone because of VOC emissions. I wanted to explore this subject because it is an important part of Utah’s air pollution problem.

Q:  What new information did you discover with this research? Also, why is this research important in the context of what is currently happening in environmental law?

 A:  Concern for climate change led the Obama administration to require more effective control measures for methane emissions. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, methane is 28 to 36 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping heat over a 100-year period. Methane has been somewhat controlled by the measures used to control VOCs, but controls are inadequate. Methane continues to be released in large quantities because of lax regulation that allows the oil and gas industry to follow practices that harm the environment. Control of these pollutants is complicated by the fact that oil and gas in the west is produced on lands subject to state regulation, but large quantities are also produced on federal and Indian lands that are not controlled by state law. This means that although states are charged with the responsibility to clean up their state’s atmosphere many sources of pollution that contribute to poor air quality are not subject to state regulation. To control these emissions the states and the oil and gas industry must deal with a complex body of state, federal and Indian law that governs these emissions.

The article looks at federal and state laws governing emissions from oil and gas operations. A prior article, “The Control of Air Pollution on Indian Reservations,” 46 Envtl Law 893 (2016), discusses the control of air emissions on Indian lands. The research shows that the laws regulating oil and gas operations are complex and often controversial. Environmental controls can be costly. Because oil and gas operations usually occur in rural areas where the industry is a major part of the economy air pollution control requirements are often strongly resisted by the oil and gas industry as well as the citizen of the production counties that are financially dependent on the industry’s wellbeing. Balancing the need to protect an important part of the western states’ economy with the need to protect the health of both the citizens and the ecosystem is a difficult challenge.

Q: What is next for you on the research front?

 A:   My next research project is an examination of the EPA’s visibility protection program based on its Regional Haze Rule.