EPA pushes rules slashing methane, hinting oil industry hasn’t gone far enough

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Tuesday proposed the first-ever rules cracking down on the oil and gas industry’s emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

Although the draft regulations advanced by the Environmental Protection Agency chiefly target new oil and gas wells, processing equipment and storage facilities, the four-pronged proposal lays the groundwork for the government to eventually go after methane leaking from existing infrastructure too.

Oil and gas companies already reeling from low commodity prices warn the planned rules will throttle domestic energy development and are unnecessary in light of the industry’s voluntary work to plug leaks of methane, the primary component of natural gas.

“The oil and gas industry is leading the charge in reducing methane,” said American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard. “The last thing we need is more duplicative and costly regulation that could increase the cost of energy for Americans.”

The proposed regulations set to be finalized next year add another layer to President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy and give the administration more evidence of concrete greenhouse gas emission cuts to take to international climate negotiations in Paris this December. They also mark another step in the Obama administration’s gradual move away from natural gas, a fuel he previously championed as a cleaner burner alternative to coal.

But the EPA’s draft rules alone won’t fulfill a White House pledge to pare the oil and gas sector’s methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent of 2012 levels by 2025. Instead, the proposed regulations along with a 2012 rule targeting volatile organic compounds at new natural gas wells, are expected to reduce the sector’s methane emissions by just 20 to 30 percent.

Read more: White House strategy to cut methane takes aim at oil industry

Janet McCabe, the acting assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, stressed that the proposal is only one step toward the administration’s 2025 benchmark. “As we move forward, additional opportunities will be identified to get to that goal,” McCabe said.

There already are other methane-related regulations on the horizon, including at the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, which is drafting a plan to limit how much natural gas energy companies can vent and flare from their wells in public lands.

But environmentalists argued that reaching the administration’s 40-45 percent target will require the government to eventually regulate methane leaks from existing oil and gas infrastructure — and if finalized, the EPA’s plan could trigger a Clean Air Act obligation to do so. EPA’s McCabe sidestepped reporters’ questions Tuesday about whether additional regulation would be needed.

Conrad Schneider, advocacy director of the Clean Air Task Force, said the EPA is “setting the stage for rules that address emissions from older oil and gas sites.”

Oil and gas industry leaders warned about that slippery slope, with Marty Durbin, president of America’s Natural Gas Alliance arguing that a “collaborative approach” would yield bigger, faster methane reductions “than new and unnecessary regulation.”

Oil industry officials argue they already have a financial incentive to capture leaking natural gas and bring it to market, though the incremental cost of some of those changes may exceed the potential recovery, making them a harder sell amid today’s low oil prices.

Although methane represents only about 9 percent of human-related greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, the substance is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in warming the atmosphere.

The oil industry proudly points to an 11 percent decline in methane emissions from natural gas systems since 2005, but some observers expect numbers to start climbing as a result of the oil drilling boom. And recent research suggests many leaks go undetected, so actual emissions could be much higher.

A study published in Environmental Science and Technology on Tuesday, suggests that gathering equipment and processing facilities are leaking natural gas at rates eight times higher than EPA estimates.

Methane emissions also threaten to undo some of the climate change benefits of generating more electricity from natural gas and new EPA rules curbing greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector.

The EPA proposal builds on a 2012 requirement aimed at curbing pollution from new and modified natural gas wells. Although the three-year-old mandates targeted volatile organic compounds at the sites, the approach cut methane emissions as a side benefit.

The new proposal would go further, requiring methane and volatile organic compound reductions from hydraulically fractured oil wells too. And, the new plan would extend those emission-cutting requirements further downstream to natural gas transmission and processing equipment.

Owners and operators also would be required to find and repair leaks.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy called the new proposal “cost effective.”

“We are underscoring our commitment to reducing the pollution fueling climate change and protecting public health while supporting responsible energy development, transparency and accountability,” McCarthy said in a statement.

Although environmentalists generally praised the EPA proposal Tuesday, some pressed the Obama administration to expand it by wrapping in existing oil and gas wells.

“We have a serious problem with existing and abandoned wells, and the final rule needs to address them,” said Kate DeAngelis, a climate and energy campaigner with Friends of the Earth. “The real solution to climate change is to leave fossil fuels in the ground and to clean up the abandoned wells that continue to poison our air.”

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