Obama to expand methane leak crackdown in oil and gas industry

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The Obama administration is expanding its newest pollution crackdown for the oil and natural gas industry, now targeting existing wells for the first time.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) effort was announced Thursday as part of a joint climate change declaration between the United States and Canada.

Canada is committing to taking similar efforts to reduce the oil and gas sector's emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that has a short life in the atmosphere but causes at least 25 times as much global warming by volume as the same amount of carbon dioxide.

The joint U.S.-Canada declaration also commits both countries to formally sign on to last year’s Paris climate change agreement “as soon as possible,” taking concrete steps to safeguard certain areas in the Arctic and cooperate to expand clean energy, among other pieces.

It’s being rolled out as part of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s official state visit to the United States, the first by a Canadian leader in nearly two decades.

Upon taking office last November, Trudeau declared that Canada would make fighting climate change a top priority and would once again participate in international efforts to do so after 10 years under conservative leadership.

The EPA last year proposed strict limits on methane leaks from oil and gas drilling as part of the administration's strategy to slash methane emissions by up to 45 percent from 2012 levels. The White House said Canada’s new methane goals will mirror that of the United States.

The EPA’s initiative was immediately criticized by industry and congressional Republicans for being unnecessary and too costly.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, complained that targeting newly drilled wells avoided the hundreds of thousands of existing wells across the country and their methane emissions.

EPA chief Gina McCarthyGina McCarthyGlobal climate pact may bump into Senate roadblock House Dems push EPA on fracking study Watchdog: EPA was too slow to act on Flint MORE acknowledged Thursday that to hit Obama’s methane goal, standards for existing wells will need to come next. 

“We’ll be bringing the same urgency to this task as we have to all our methane work over the last four years,” she told reporters. 

McCarthy said the EPA will begin tackling the issue “immediately,” beginning by asking oil and gas companies to provide the agency with information on methane emissions and reduction strategies. The EPA said companies will be required to report certain data about methane output next month.

“I’m confident the end result of this effort will be a common-sense, reasonable standard to reduce methane emissions that are contributing to climate change,” she said. 

McCarthy didn’t say when any formal existing source regulations would come out or whether the EPA will have time to propose and finalize them before the end of President Obama’s term next January.

“We’re right now looking at what we’re doing next, which is announcing that we’re moving forward with an [information collection request], which is the best way for us to gather information,” she said.

“We’re not, at this point, taking any options or tools off the table with regard to what else we’re doing this year, but we have no further announcement at this point.” 

Methane is the main component of natural gas. The Interior Department is working on rules to limit methane emissions from oil and gas wells on federal land, while other agencies, including the Agriculture Department, are working on their own voluntary efforts to reduce the pollutant.

Devin Henry contributed. This post was updated at 8:37 a.m.