Methane emissions from U.S. oil and natural gas onshore operations can be economically cut significantly below projected future levels, according to an analysis released Monday by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and authored by ICF International, a Fairfax, VA-based research firm.

ICF's report concluded that by adopting existing emissions-control technologies, onshore oil and gas operations can cut methane emissions 40% below projected 2018 levels at a cost that the researchers estimated to be less than one cent/Mcf of gas produced.

The initial capital costs of applying the technologies is estimated at $2.2 billion with the bulk of it applied to the oil/gas production sector, according to ICF.

Some of the emissions reduction technologies "pay for themselves over time through the sale of captured natural gas," according to the EDF-commissioned report, "Economic Analysis of Methane Emission Reduction Opportunities in the U.S. Onshore Oil and Natural Gas Industries." The report is an extension of other work EDF is doing related to reducing methane emissions.

"If the full economic value of the recovered natural gas is taken into account, including savings that do not directly accrue to companies implementing methane reduction measure, the 40% reduction is achievable while saving the U.S. economy and consumers more than $100 million annually," ICF said. "The cost for some measures and segments of the industry is more or less than the net total."

Among the methane abatement opportunities, the largest potential relates to leak detection and repair of fugitive emissions at facilities and gas compressors, reduced flaring of associated gas and replacement of high-emitting pneumatic devices, the study said, noting a co-benefit "at no extra cost" comes from reducing conventional pollutants (volatile organic compounds and other hazardous air pollutants), along with the methane.

The ICF study offered some caveats related to the still-evolving work of measuring methane leaks on a comprehensive basis. A 2011 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) analysis of emissions is based on some older data sources that ICF called "imperfect."

It also noted that emission mitigation costs and performance are "highly site specific and variable," noting the values used in the latest ICF study are "estimated average values."

A recent report in the scientific journal Science concluded that organizations including the EPA have underestimated U.S. methane emissions including those from the natural gas industry (see Daily GPIFeb. 14).

EDF President Fred Krupp touted the ICF analysis as an "in-depth" assessment of "the vast potential this nation has to address one of the key environmental issues confronting U.S. oil/gas development."