EPA unveils first methane regulations

EPA unveils first methane regulations
© Greg Nash

The Obama administration on Wednesday unveiled first-ever regulations targeting methane emissions from industrial sources directly, setting the stage, experts say, for future action to rein in the greenhouse gas.

The standards, which will be proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency this summer, are one piece of a larger effort that the administration says will help it to achieve its new goal to slash methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 45 percent. 

The 2025 reduction target will be based on 2012 levels, the White House said.

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Experts say that while the initial actions announced by the administration aren’t enough to reach the 45 percent target by 2025, the move is “significant.”

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is an extremely potent greenhouse gas with 25 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 100-year time period.

Jessika Trancik, assistant professor at MIT, said one “critical” missing component from the pending proposal is language targeting methane emissions from existing wells, equipment and the like in oil and gas operations.

Wednesday’s actions include two main regulations that the EPA and Interior Department will propose, which target methane from new and modified oil and gas wells and equipment responsible for venting and flaring on public lands.

Trancik said a concern shared among scientists and researchers is that the 40 percent to 45 percent reduction target might not be high enough.

“When we look at timing of emissions and are counting methane against carbon dioxide it may be on the lower end of what’s needed” to reach the overall goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 30 percent by 2025.

Dina Kruger, who served as director of climate change at the EPA under both Bush administrations, echoed the sentiment that zeroing in on existing wells and equipment is important to reach the target, but warned not to underestimate President Obama’s action.

“By deciding to regulate methane directly, even if only new sources at this time, EPA has set the stage to reduce more in the future,” she said.

Kruger admitted that the responsibility to regulate existing sources “would be on the watch of the next president” given the short timeline Obama has to implement the regulations introduced on Wednesday.

At the earliest, the final rules from the EPA and Interior Department aren’t expected out until sometime in the middle of 2016, leaving no time to finalize any additional standards.

“Yes, they are leaving it in a situation where such diametrically different perspectives on climate change could determine whether and how something happens next,” Kruger said. “But the next president can’t completely turn his back on it without suffering other consequences as a result.”

If the next president is a Republican who tries to scale back Obama’s climate change actions or fails to tackle existing sources, she said, other global leaders will come knocking.

“There is a fair amount of pressure to do something on climate change from the international community,” Kruger said.

Pointing to one example, Kruger recalled her time working for former President George W. Bush. Early on, she said Bush made clear that the U.S. would not sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement among leading nations to curb greenhouse gases.

But Bush still sent money and devoted time to do other things that helped satisfy international players, she said.

“They couldn’t do nothing, they had to do something. There will be that kind of pressure, and domestically if environmental groups aren’t seeing progress, there will be lawsuits and they will go to court to make EPA regulate existing sources,” Kruger added.

Still, industry officials aren’t happy with the rollout and are warning of the impact the methane plan could have on the shale boom.

Frank Macchiarola, executive vice president for the American Natural Gas Association, said federal standards could put a damper on industry action, which he says has helped reduce methane leaks drastically over the past few years.

“Regulation throws a wet blanket on that innovation and makes it costlier to do business,” he said.

He said the industry has taken offense to the administration’s decision, questioning why it “would single out” the sector “given its demonstrated reductions.

Natural gas production has increased by more than 50 percent since 2005, but methane emissions from the sector have fallen roughly 15 percent over that same time period through 2012, EPA data state.

“We’ve helped the administration achieve their own climate goal target. So when the administration talks about cutting greenhouse gas emissions, they are talking about the increased use of natural gas,” Macchiarola said.