White House strategy to cut methane takes aim at oil industry

WASHINGTON — The White House on Friday unveiled a broad strategy for curbing the potent greenhouse gas methane, including regulations clamping down on oil and gas development.

The Obama administration’s inter-agency methane strategy combines a mix of new and previously announced steps to rein in the short-lived but powerful greenhouse gas released from landfills, oil wells, dairy farms and coal mining.

The first big target is the oil industry, with new Interior Department regulations coming later this year to curb venting and flaring of natural gas at wells on public lands and wider air mandates possible from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2016.

Coming as part of the Obama administration’s the White House’s move had both symbolic and strategic value. It underscored President Barack Obama’s commitment to use his executive powers to set environmental policies, effectively sidestepping Congress on those issues. It also put oil and gas companies on notice that they must do more to clean up the methane pollution all along the supply chain, from wells to the burner tip.

Although many of the policies were already in the works, they now gain the full force of the White House — and the promise that regulatory agencies will collaborate to maximize emission reductions.

The result, said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center, is that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management will write complementary — not conflicting — rules to pare methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.

“With methane pollution and waste from oil and gas development, EPA and BLM action can act as complementary bookends,” Schlenker-Goodrich said. “EPA can leverage its authority as an air regulator while BLM can leverage its authority as a land manager. These bookends can maximize methane reductions.”

“This isn’t just symbolism,” he added.

Under the 15-page strategy, the EPA will decide this fall whether to impose new rules aimed at further paring methane emissions from storing, transporting and processing oil and natural gas. A White House official said the EPA first will study the issue this spring and consult with stakeholders before deciding on its regulatory strategy.

Any resulting EPA regulations would be in place by the end of 2016, the White House said, building on a new requirement that oil and gas companies use “green completion” technology that reduces volatile organic compounds and methane emissions at some wells.

Chilling effect

Oil industry leaders stressed that energy companies have already taken steps to plug methane leaks and capture natural gas flowing out of oil wells.

“Additional regulations are not necessary and could have a chilling effect on the American energy renaissance, our economy and our national security,” said Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute. “We continue to make substantial progress to reduce emissions voluntarily and in compliance with EPA emissions standards.”

Related story: Methane leaks from natural gas wells declining

Concern has been building about methane, the main component of natural gas, because it is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide, even though it dissipates much more quickly in the atmosphere.

While methane represents only about 9 percent of human-related greenhouse gas emissions in the United States now and has declined 11 percent since 1990, some expect it to start climbing again as a result of the domestic oil and gas drilling boom.

Urgent issue

“We’ve long understood the urgency and importance of controlling (methane) as a way to slow dangerous climate change,” said David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Curbing methane also will help reduce other toxic pollutants associated with oil and gas development.”

Methane emissions are a major challenge for the energy industry, extending all the way from oil wells to the pipes that distribute gas to customers.

There are widely varying estimates about how much methane escapes from natural gas pipelines, valves and gathering centers, with some studies suggesting as much as 8 percent leaks from the system.

The methane leaks could undermine the climate change benefits of generating more electricity from natural gas, which produces about half as much carbon dioxide as coal.

Going up in smoke: More work needed to stop flaring gas, officials say

New and replaced pipelines are already helping to drive methane emissions down, American Gas Association said. “Smart, cost effective investments in system modernization can continue — and accelerate — the trend in decreasing natural gas emissions,” said AGA president Dave McCurdy.

Further upstream, natural gas coming out of oil wells is sometimes flared as a less-lucrative byproduct of the more valuable crude, sending pollutants into the atmosphere instead of extra money into investors’ pockets. For Bakken oil wells in North Dakota and Montana, where pipelines are relatively scarce, about a third of the natural gas is lost to venting and flaring.

And while burning the methane is a better alternative to simply venting the potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, it produces carbon dioxide as a result.

Energy companies have already been making some headway in capturing the natural gas that flows out of Bakken oil wells, with the industry on track to spend about $6 billion on natural gas gathering and processing infrastructure there by the end of next year.

Beyond what’s cost effective

But Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, stressed that the “cost-effective solutions” are already in place. Mandates would spur changes that may be only marginally beneficial to a company’s bottom line.

“This strategy has the potential to deliver the federal regulatory oversight that is needed to complement state efforts and make sure that all of the oil and gas industry meets basic, commonsense standards to deploy readily available technologies,” Krupp said. “A federal strategy to reduce venting, flaring and leaks of natural gas is good for the environment and good for national energy security.”

The White House’s strategy, outlined over 15 pages, also includes:

  • plans for the EPA to update standards to pare emissions from new landfills;
  • voluntary steps that could accelerate dairy farms’ adoption of expensive methane digesters capable of turning the gas into electricity; and