White House tackles methane emissions in sweeping strategy

The Obama administration is ordering federal agencies to take on emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane in an effort to fight climate change.

The sweeping interagency plan highlights new steps the administration will take to cut emissions across a number of industries, including energy and agriculture.

The long-awaited methane strategy provides no hard timeline for a proposed rule by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

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The agency will begin working on series of white papers this spring focused on significant sources of methane emissions, such as hydraulic fractured oil wells and natural-gas system leaks, said Dan Utech, top climate adviser to President Obama.

Methane is the primary component of natural gas, which Obama has touted as the bridge fuel in the fight against climate change, making the strategy all the more crucial.

By this summer, the EPA is expected to propose updated standards to reduce methane from new landfills and to take public comments for existing landfills. But that doesn't include natural-gas pipeline leaks or wells from regions like the Bakken shale formation, which Utech said would be an important area of review.

"If EPA chooses to go down the regulatory path [for emissions rules on hydraulic fracturing] they will complete work on those regulations by 2016," Utech said.

In April, the Interior Department will drop a notice of its intent to propose a rule that will allow the agency to gather information on the capture and sale, or disposal, of methane from coal mines.

A future rule would focus on reducing barriers to help coal mines benefit from methane recovery.

And later this year, the Bureau of Land Management will propose updated standards to reduce venting and flaring from oil-and-gas production on public lands. Due to a rush of oil drilling and limited gas-gathering lines, which connect oil wells to processing plants, a significant amount of gas coming out of wells is burned, or flared, as waste, which contributes to emissions.

Gas flares in the Bakken shale oil field release roughly 6 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.

In June the Energy Department, the EPA and the Department of Agriculture will also release a "biogas road map" that will outline voluntary strategies to speed up cost-effective technologies that cut emissions in the dairy sector 25 percent by 2020.
 
The natural-gas industry reiterated its commitment to reducing methane leaks following the administration's announcement, as its network has surged in recent years.

“We all share the goal of a safe, resilient, clean energy infrastructure and natural gas utilities are working with state regulators and key stakeholders to do our part,” said Dave McCurdy, president and CEO of the American Gas Association.

“We will achieve this goal in our sector through investments to modernize and expand the grid and by delivering natural gas safely to a growing numbers of homes and businesses. Smart, cost effective investments in system modernization can continue, and accelerate, the trend in decreasing natural gas emissions.”

Environmental groups, while at odds with Obama's push to expand natural-gas development, applauded the strategy on Friday.

"President Obama’s plan to reduce climate-disrupting methane pollution is an important step in reining in an out of control industry exempt from too many public health protections," said Deborah Nardone of the Sierra Club.

"However, even with the most rigorous methane controls and monitoring in place, we will still fall short of what is needed to fight climate disruption if we do not reduce our reliance on these dirty fossil fuels," she added.

Utech said the methane strategy will help the administration achieve its overall goals of reducing emissions from 2005 levels by 2020, which is in line with the president's climate agenda.