EPA unveils plan to slash methane emissions

Greg Nash

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new rules Tuesday to limit emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane from the oil and gas sector. 

The draft rule is part of an Obama administration strategy to cut methane emissions by up to 45 percent from 2012 levels over the next decade.

EPA officials said the rule — which focuses on new and modified oil and gas production sources — won’t meet that goal alone, but the agency stopped short of saying it would need to issue rules for existing natural gas operations to hit the benchmark.

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“We do project that our proposal will achieve significant reductions to benefit the climate and public health on the way to meeting that goal,” said Janet McCabe, the EPA’s point person on clean air policies.

Green groups lauded the rule on Tuesday while the oil and gas industry pushed back. The reaction was the inverse of that on Monday, when the Obama administration handed the oil industry a major victory by approving an Arctic drilling plan for Royal Dutch Shell.

The proposed rule is the newest plank in President Obama’s environmental agenda, and it’s designed to help put the U.S. on the path toward meeting the emissions reductions goals it has proposed as part of an international climate push this year.  

Earlier this month Obama introduced the Clean Power Plan, a rule designed to cut carbon emissions from the electricity sector by 32 percent by 2030. McCabe said the methane rule would build on that effort.

Methane, the key component of natural gas, has a high impact on global warming — up to 25 times that of carbon dioxide. McCabe said the rule would cut between 340,000 and 400,000 short tons of methane annually in 2025, the equivalent of 7.7 to 9.0 million metric tones of carbon dioxide.

The EPA’s proposed rule would require drillers to use advanced new technologies to track and block leaks — both accidental and purposeful — during the production and transmission of oil and gas. Officials are looking to finalize the rule in 2016 after a public comment period.

As natural gas production in the U.S. has skyrocketed, there have been growing concerns about methane leaks. The Obama administration has said more needs to be done to cut down on those emissions in the years ahead, and it’s pushing multiple rules from both the EPA and the Bureau of Land Management to get that done.

“What I am saying that as we move forward, additional opportunities will be identified in order to get to that goal,” McCabe said.

Tuesday’s proposal was already receiving plaudits from green groups, but is likely to meet with fierce resistance from the oil and gas sector. 

“EPA’s new proposal to regulate methane emissions is not only unnecessary, but another example of the administration’s punitive expansion of their war on fossil fuels,” said Sen. Jim InhofeJames InhofeFunding bill rejected as shutdown nears Senate Dems: Add Flint aid to spending deal Shutdown risk grows over Flint MORE (R-Okla.), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe promised to hold hearings on the issue this fall. 

“I look forward to ‎joining my colleagues in coming months to fight back on the administration’s attempt to continue punishing American workers and families to further their costly climate agenda.”

Rep. Rob BishopRob BishopEndangered species rule changed, angering environmental group Overnight Energy: Obama integrates climate change into national security planning Overnight Regulation: Republicans blast agencies' climate reviews MORE (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the rule “is another unprecedented attack” on energy production.

“The EPA’s plan to limit emissions flies in the face of technological reality,” he said. “The truth is that while the oil and natural gas industry has greatly increased production on state and private lands, methane emissions have actually fallen.”

The oil and gas industry notes that methane emissions have declined up to 11 percent since 2005 from the natural gas sector, based on EPA numbers. Officials say the industry has a financial interest in curbing emissions on its own, making government regulations unnecessary.

“Oil and natural gas exploration and production methane emissions, in the context of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, are small and declining,” said Barry Russell, the president and CEO of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

“EPA’s own data show that methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing are already declining despite rising production levels.” 

When the EPA announced a voluntary program to track emissions from the industry last month, interest groups like the American Petroleum Institute (API) said they could support opt-in efforts to work with the EPA on emissions.

“API supports a common sense regulatory approach that builds on cost-effective controls already required by EPA for new equipment,” API President Jack Gerard said in a statement Tuesday.

“Combined with smart, voluntary efforts for existing sources, this approach will continue to lower methane emissions. To avoid undermining American competitiveness, we urge the EPA to coordinate its efforts and not add duplicative rules.”

Environmentalists, though, praised the rule, while saying it should be a first step toward targeting emissions from the oil and gas sector. 

“We’re encouraged that the Obama administration is beginning to ask the oil and gas industry to bear the burden of its pollution,” Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said. “These rules pave the way for the administration to move swiftly to curb emissions from existing sources.”

“EPA is taking a critical step in proposing limits on methane pollution from new oil and gas development,” said Abigail Dillen, Earthjustice’s vice president of litigation for climate and energy. 

“Cutting pollution from the massive web of existing oil and gas development is the essential next step that urgently demands EPA’s attention.”

- Updated at 1:22 p.m.