White House Moves to Rein In Methane Emissions


In the Obama administration’s latest use of executive authority to address climate change, the White House announced plans Wednesday to impose new regulations on the oil and gas industry that would nearly halve methane emissions from wells, drill sites and pipelines in 10 years. The new standards, to be developed by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act, would aim by 2025 to cut methane emissions by up to 45 percent from levels recorded in 2012. They would also slash the spread of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, key components of ground-level smog that have been linked to cancer, neurological conditions and other illnesses. In November, President Barack Obama pledged to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by up to 28 percent by 2025 as part of a climate accord with China. “We can begin to slow the events of climate change and leave a more clean and stable environment for future generations,” Dan Utech, deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change, said in a teleconference with reporters Wednesday, calling the planned reductions an “ambitious goal.” [READ: EPA to Issue Carbon Rules by Summer] The new standards are expected to be unveiled this summer and finalized next year, White House and EPA officials said. The Interior Department will also draw up new regulations for oil and gas sites on federal land. Nearly a third of the nation’s methane emissions in 2012 came from oil and gas operations, chiefly from the tens of thousands of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling sites that have fueled the nation’s energy boom of the past decade. And while methane accounts for just 9 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions overall, it has 20 to 25 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas. A study published last February found leaks from oil and gas sites were as much as 50 percent greater than previously estimated. Another study published last month revealed that a methane plume the size of Delaware has formed above the roughly 40,000 oil and gas wells that dot the western U.S. [ALSO: Pols, Lobbyists Cash in on Keystone XL Pipeline] “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," Fred Krupp, president of advocacy group the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement. “Methane pollution is both an environmental threat and a needless waste that the energy industry has failed to take on.” Methane, unlike carbon dioxide, is the key component of natural gas, and oil and gas companies have proved willing to take steps to reduce leaks of it from wells, drill sites and pipelines. The sector, though, has remained wary of federal regulation, and the new methane standards will likely draw fierce opposition from industry groups and Republicans in Congress. “Every company is strongly incentivized to capture methane and bring it to the market,” Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute, said at a news conference last month. “We don’t need regulation to tell us to do that.” [MORE: Most Republican Voters Support Carbon Regs] Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, promised Wednesday that the agency would “work closely” with states and industry “to make sure we’re not inconsistent or duplicative with their programs and make sure that oil and gas development can continue in a safe and responsible way.” Industry groups and conservative lawmakers have strongly opposed Obama’s climate initiatives, which he has made a central part of his second term. Last week, the EPA announced it would finalize three separate air standards for power plants, which promise to be the first-ever measures to address carbon dioxide emissions from such facilities. Obama also has issued new fuel economy standards for cars and trucks, and in 2009 joined a U.N. accord by pledging to cut the country’s greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels. Since 1990, methane emissions have actually fallen by about 16 percent, the EPA said, but they are projected to rise by as much as 25 percent in the next decade as U.S. oil and gas production continues to expand. Fracking and horizontal drilling have, by some measures, made the U.S. the world’s largest energy producer. “We’re not going to get there overnight,” Utech said of the new methane and VOC standards for 2025, “but we think this set of steps puts us on a trajectory to hit that goal.”



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