The Obama administration’s top environmental regulator defended her agency’s decision not to seek methane emissions cuts from the country’s more than 1.1 million existing oil and natural gas wells.
Instead, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only plans to enforce new methane emissions rules on wells started after it releases its rule in 2016, leading to criticisms from environmental groups.
But she left the door open to future regulations of existing wells.
“The good news is that they’ve indicated of their own volition that they’re looking at closing the leaks and trying to make sure that they recapture methane,” McCarthy told reporters Friday.
“If existing sources aggressively reduce their emissions, then it’s not clear that there will be cost-effective reductions that will necessitate regulation of existing facilities.”
Methane is the main component of natural gas.
The EPA also said it would seek to cut methane from existing wells in areas that have poor air quality, because the Clean Air Act allows such actions.
But the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement that the Obama administration’s climate goals “will require EPA to curb methane pollution from all existing oil and gas operations across the nation, not just those in some parts of the country.”
Michele Roberts, co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, said that “by leaving out existing oil and gas facilities from its methane and [volatile organic compounds] reduction plan, the administration is allowing oil and gas companies to get away with polluting people and avoid accountability.”
But McCarthy said she is not ignoring existing wells.
“I don’t want folks to think that we’re not working with the existing industry to reduce methane, because we clearly are, and much of that work has been very successful,” she said.
“What I’m hoping that the new source standards as they move forward will do is send a signal to our expectation of where the leaks are occurring, where the opportunities for reductions are, so that existing facilities can also, as they modify and they move forward, make changes that will allow them to be assured that they’re putting in the right type of equipment and making the changes they need.”
She also reasoned that regulating the country’s more than 1.1 million wells, all of which are very different, would be a tough task.
The existing wells are “in very different types of formations, all very differently designed,” McCarthy said. “EPA has to look at technologies that are available, and for a national rule, that’s a lot for us to get right out the gate.”