E.P.A. Announces New Rules to Cut Methane Emissions

Source: By GARDINER HARRIS and CORAL DAVENPORT, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Oil rigging equipment near Sweetwater, Texas. The Obama administration has set a goal of reducing methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025.
Credit Cooper Neill/Reuters 

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Tuesday proposed the first federal regulations requiring the nation’s oil and gas industry to cut emissions of methane as part of an expanding and increasingly aggressive effort to combat climate change.

In a conference call with reporters, Janet McCabe, the Environmental Protection Agency’s acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, said the rules were designed to ensure that oil and gas companies reduced waste and sold more gas that would otherwise be lost, while protecting the climate and the health of the public.

Ms. McCabe estimated that the proposals — which would require drillers to stop leaks and capture lost gas even in wells intended to extract only oil — would cost the industry up to $420 million to carry out by 2025, but that there would be savings, including reduced waste, of as much as $550 million during that period, bringing a net benefit of as much as $150 million.

The new rules, which were widely expected, are part of a broad push by the Obama administration to cut emissions of planet-warming gases from different sectors of the economy. This month, Mr. Obama unveiled the centerpiece of that plan, a final regulation meant to cut emissions of carbon dioxide by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 and increase to 28 percent the proportion of the nation’s electricity generated by renewable sources like solar and wind.

Those rules, if they withstand legal challenges, would transform the nation’s energy sector.

Reducing methane is an important part of the administration’s strategy, because methane is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in trapping heat, although it persists in the atmosphere for far less time than carbon dioxide does. The administration has set a goal of reducing methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025.

The latest proposed regulations are expected to reduce methane emissions by 20 to 30 percent, Ms. McCabe said, getting the administration about halfway to its overall methane reduction target. Ms. McCabe declined to say how the administration intended to get all the way to its goal.

“There are a variety of approaches that people are looking at,” Ms. McCabe said. “E.P.A. is not the only agency looking at these operations.”

Oil and gas companies oppose the proposals, calling them unnecessary and costly, while environmental advocacy groups say they do not go far enough because they apply mainly to new wells and not most existing ones.

Representative Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas who is the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, released a statement on Tuesday saying the proposals are part of the administration’s “war on American energy jobs.”

“The E.P.A.’s own data shows that methane emissions in the United States decreased by almost 15 percent between 1990 and 2013, yet E.P.A. is forging ahead,” he wrote.

But new studies suggest that methane emissions from the oil and gas industry may be far higher than federal estimates, in part because of leaks from parts of drilling and gas gathering and storage systems that are rarely monitored. The environmental agency has proposed improved monitoring.

Faced with the E.P.A.’s plan and another one that is expected from the Bureau of Land Management regarding methane, oil and gas producers are grappling with regulations that could prove costly just as many of them are coping with lower prices for their products, said Sandra Snyder, an environmental lawyer in Washington who represents producers.

“There’s a lot hitting the oil and gas industry at once,” Ms. Snyder said.

Environmentalists offered tepid praise of Tuesday’s proposals, which must go through a public comment period and analysis that often takes a year before being completed. Many faulted the administration for focusing the proposals on only new wells.

“The largest source of this pollution, however, is the oil and gas infrastructure that already exists across the country,” Meleah Geertsma, a senior lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a written statement. “That must be addressed next.”

Jack N. Gerard, the president of the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade association, said Tuesday’s proposals were unnecessary because the industry was reducing methane emissions on its own.

“The last thing we need is more duplicative and costly regulation that could increase the cost of energy for Americans,” Mr. Gerard said.