EPA expands methane rules to all oil and gas wells

A well is drilled at an Apache Energy site in the Permian Basin in Midland, Texas, Feb. 14, 2012. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)
A well is drilled at an Apache Energy site in the Permian Basin in Midland, Texas, Feb. 14, 2012. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expanding its crackdown on methane emissions from oil and natural gas drilling to all existing wells.

The announcement from the White House Thursday came as part of a joint agreement with Canada on climate change, curbing methane emissions from North America and taking steps to protect the Arctic region from rising temperatures and oceans.

The EPA had announced plans to cut methane emissions from new oil and gas wells last year. But if the United States was to reach the goal set out by President Obama of cutting methane emissions at least 40 percent by 2025, existing wells have to be included, said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

“Based on this growing body of science it’s become clear it’s come time for EPA to take additional action,” she said in a press conference. “We’ll start this work immediately and we intend to work quickly.”

The announcement came ahead of Obama’s meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House Thursday, where the two were expected to discuss how the countries could work together in meeting the goal agreed to by the leaders of close to 200 countries in Paris last year – not allowing the world temperature to rise more than 2 degrees Celsius.

The White House said Thursday morning both Canada and the United States were planning to make public their plans on climate change before the end of the year and ahead of the schedule laid out in Paris.

“The thinking is both countries are very committed,” said John Morton,  senior director for energy and climate change in the administration. “We want to lead other countries.”

The methane announcement quickly drew condemnation from the oil and gas sector. Lowering methane emissions will largely entail seeking out and repairing gas leaks in storage tanks and pipelines, time-consuming tasks companies have largely avoided so far.

The American Petroleum Institute said expanded methane regulation could reduce oil and gas activity in the United States, potentially leading to lost jobs and increased energy costs.

“The administration is catering to environmental extremists at the expense of American consumers,” API vice president of regulatory and economic policy Kyle Isakower said.

Central to the joint announcement by the United States and Canada was the Arctic.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said both countries must take a close eye to what commercial activities were allowed in the region, as climate change posed a particularly acute risk to communities and wildlife there.

The Interior department is expected to release its plans for offshore drilling in the weeks ahead. Along with an expansion into U.S. Atlantic waters, the possibility of increased drilling in the Arctic Ocean off Alaksa’s north coast has drawn fierce opposition from environmentalists

Jewell did not rule out drilling in the Arctic Thursday  but said if it were done it would need to be done under “a science-based standard” on the potential risk of oil spills.

See images from ConocoPhillip’s drilling project in Alaska in the gallery below.

She added, all decisions ” will depend in part on ensuring commercial activity does not diminish our ability to address climate change.”

With less than a year left in office, Obama faces a tight schedule to get an expanded rule on methane emissions finalized.

EPA is preparing a data request to the energy industry and regulatory agencies, to try and get a handle on the level of methane emissions from oil and gas operations. But whether it will have time to finalize a rule before next January was the subject of speculation Thursday.

“Certainly it will be difficult,” Isakower said. ” If they moved the [data request] quickly, they could get a regulation through before they’re out the door.”

The EPA announced it’s plan to regulate methane from new wells in January 2015, and that rule is still under development.

Asked about the timing during a press conference, McCarthy avoided specifics.

“We’ll do whatever we can to move forward on greenhouse gas,” she said.