White House methane plan takes aim at oil and gas industry

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Wednesday it will impose sweeping new rules on the oil and gas industry that aim to slash methane emissions from the sector.

White House officials said the plan aims to cut oil and gas emissions of the powerful heat-trapping greenhouse gas by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels within a decade.

The administration first telegraphed its plans to clamp down on methane last March as part of its broad climate action plan, but environmental regulators have insisted that new mandates were not a certainty. The blueprint unveiled Wednesday is a mix of coming regulations — hitting both new and existing oil and gas infrastructure — and stepped-up voluntary efforts.

“This strategy will benefit the climate, the economy and public health,” said Dan Utech, a special assistant to the president for energy and climate change.

“The U.S. is now the largest oil and gas producer in the world, providing an abundance source of energy,” Utech noted. “The good news is that emissions from the oil and gas sector are down 16 percent since 1990, but without additional action (they are) projected to rise by about 25 percent between now and 2020.”

Methane, the primary ingredient in natural gas, is a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas believed to be 84 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere over a 20-year timespan and 25 times more powerful measured over 100 years.

It can flow out of oil wells alongside crude, escape from pneumatic controllers and leak from other infrastructure.

The administration’s move triggers a battle with the oil and gas industry, which says it is already making major strides in curbing methane emissions voluntarily even as production surges, and the plan is expected to draw scrutiny in the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard said the proposal unfairly singles out oil and natural gas for regulation, even though methane represents just 2 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

“As oil and natural gas production has risen dramatically, methane emissions have fallen thanks to industry leadership and investment in new technologies,” Gerard said. “Emissions will continue to fall as operators innovate and find new ways to capture and deliver more methane to consumers, and existing EPA and state regulations are working.”

But, Gerard warned: “Another layer of burdensome requirements could actually slow down industry progress to reduce methane emissions.”

Marty Durbin, president of America’s Natural Gas Alliance, said the White House was missing the mark by focusing on regulation instead of voluntary programs that would capitalize on the industry’s desire to capture and sell now-leaking methane.

“We are disappointed the administration is choosing to take a regulatory approach that will take years to implement, rather than a cooperative approach with the industry that we believe will ultimately result in greater emissions reductions in a shorter timeframe,” Durbin said in a statement. “We agree with the White House that voluntary efforts to reduce emissions in a comprehensive and transparent manner hold the potential to realize significant, quick and cost effective emissions reductions, and we question why the administration would single out our sector for regulation, given our demonstrated reductions.

At the White House, Utech stressed that federal regulators would work cooperatively with industry, but he insisted the administration would not back down from its plans.

“We think these are steps that should be broadly supported,” Utech said, “but to the extent that Congress is interested in attacking standards, the president’s been clear he wants to move forward here (and) we’re committed to implementing the climate action plan.”

Environmental groups have been pressuring the administration to tackle methane, insisting that climbing emissions could undermine other efforts to combat climate change.

Read more: Environmental groups crank up heat on methane mandates

Environmentalists cheered the move Wednesday, saying the first-ever direct regulation of methane will go a long way to reducing a potent climate threat. But they said more work needs to be done, including direct regulation of methane from existing oil and gas infrastructure — not just new and modified sources.

“This is a landmark moment; direct federal regulation of methane is essential, and the administration has set the right goal and launched solid steps to get started,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. “However, we will need a clearer road map and more decisive action to ensure the administration tackles the most important part of the problem—emissions from existing wells, pipelines and facilities.”

Most of the new measures will come from the Environmental Protection Agency, which has already imposed a requirement for new gas wells to use “green completions” technology that curbs the release of volatile organic compounds from those sites — while paring methane emissions as a side benefit. That 2012 requirement, which was just fully phased in, would be extended to existing oil and gas sources of volatile organic compounds in some areas that do not meet ozone health standards, said Janet McCabe, acting administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

The EPA’s approach dodges direct regulation of methane from existing oil and gas sources, such as already-sunk wells and compressors already in the field. However, the EPA’s decision to tackle volatile organic compounds from some existing sources would have the effect of limiting methane emissions too.

The EPA’s direct methane regulations will be advanced using its authority under section 111(b) of the Clean Air Act — rather than section 111(d), which prescribes federal-state programs for existing emission sources.

The agency also will set new standards for methane emissions and the release of volatile organic compounds from new and modified sources in oil and gas production, gas processing and gas transmission.

The agency also plans to expand its existing Natural Gas STAR program that encourages innovation and voluntary efforts to reduce emissions.

Separately, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management is set this spring to unveil a plan for curbing venting and flaring of natural gas at wells on public lands — a common practice at oil wells where gas is essentially a less valuable byproduct. The BLM’s move is aimed at capturing the lost taxpayer dollars when gas goes up in smoke or is vented into the atmosphere, but it will limit methane too.

EPA and White House officials said they did not know the price tag for the plans.

“We’re confident we can do this in a cost-effective way,” Utech said. “We won’t have sharp estimates of costs and benefits until we’re a little further down the track here. We’re confident, based on our own internal analysis, as well as external analyses that have been done and also the EPA’s experience in setting the 2012 standard…that there are significant highly cost-effective opportunities for reducing methane emissions from this sector.”