White House moves to regulate methane emissions

By Brian Sewell

After years of scientific research pointing to methane’s outsized contribution to climate change, the Obama administration will use its executive power to regulate emissions of the potent greenhouse gas from oil and gas productions and pipelines.

In addition to developing the first-ever regulations to limit methane emissions, the White House described a set of actions it will take beginning this year to achieve a reduction in overall U.S. emissions by up to 45 percent by 2025. Without action, methane emissions are expected to rise dramatically over the next decade.

Several federal agencies will be involved, officials say, each targeting different aspects of the oil and gas industry. The Bureau of Land Management, for example, will update outdated standards to reduce wasteful flaring of natural gas, which is primarily methane, from oil and gas wells on public lands. And the Department of Transportation will propose new natural gas pipeline safety standards that are expected to lower methane leaked during transport.

Presented as the most significant step the White House has taken to address climate change since releasing rules to limit carbon dioxide, the rules were nonetheless met with some doubt by environmentalists. They apply only to new and modified oil and gas systems and will mostly rely on voluntary efforts from oil and gas companies.

But, under the Clean Air Act, once rules are developed targeting future sources of a specific pollutant, the EPA is legally obligated to issue rules to cut emissions from existing facilities spewing that pollutant too.

Oil and gas companies argue their financial motivation to reduce leaks eliminates the need for regulation. But energy analysts say contractors and smaller companies along the supply chain who don’t actually own the gas lack incentive to invest in better equipment and monitoring.

The escaped gas represents more than just lost profits. Methane is a major contributor to global climate change and is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide.

Methane makes up 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, about one-third of which comes from oil and gas production. Although its lifespan in the atmosphere is much shorter than that of carbon dioxide, methane’s contribution to climate change is 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.

Getting methane emissions in check could be more urgent than previously thought. A 2014 study published in Science warned that methane may be leaking from oil and natural gas drilling sites and pipelines at rates 50 percent higher than official EPA estimates.


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