Climate

Obama Administration Announces Rule To Slash Methane Pollution On Public Lands

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In an effort to curb emissions and prevent waste of taxpayer dollars, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on Friday announced its long-awaited draft rule regarding methane pollution on public lands.

The draft rule will slash the venting, flaring, and leaking of methane — the main component in natural gas — from new and existing oil and gas operations on public lands. It will do so by requiring the oil and gas industry to take measures to reduce the instances of venting and flaring and to plug leaks through equipment upgrades. The rule is expected to reduce both venting and flaring by at least 41 percent and could prevent up to 169,000 tons of methane emissions per year.

The rule is considered a key component of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

“I think most people would agree that we should be using our nation’s natural gas to power our economy — not wasting it by venting and flaring it into the atmosphere,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in a statement. “We need to modernize decades-old standards to reflect existing technologies so that we can cut down on harmful methane emissions and use this captured natural gas to generate power and provide a return to taxpayers, tribes and states for this public resource.”

The rule earned praise from a wide range of supporters and stakeholders, including conservation groups, sportsmen and women, tribal leaders, western congressional delegations, and consumer watchdog groups. According to a recent poll done by Colorado College, the rule also has bipartisan support among western voters, with 80 percent of westerners supporting a rule to prevent leaked and wasted natural gas on public lands.

The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that 1 million metric tons of useful natural gas resources were vented or flared on public and tribal lands in 2013 alone and that 40 percent of that gas could be economically captured with currently available technologies. BLM Director Neil Kornze said in a press statement that the rule will save as much energy as could be used to power every household in Dallas and Denver combined, every year.

Because the sale of natural gas on public lands is an important source of public revenue, when methane pollution is vented or flared taxpayers and tribal governments cannot collect deserved royalties. According to a recent report by the Western Values Project, without the rule, taxpayers could conservatively lose almost $800 million over the next decade from the venting and flaring of natural gas on public lands.

“New Mexico’s natural resources provide jobs and royalty payments and are an important part of our state’s economy. But over $100 million worth of those natural gas resources are being wasted each year due to outdated requirements, costing the state of New Mexico $43 million in lost royalties since 2009,” the four members of the New Mexico delegation said in a joint statement Friday.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that traps more than 25 times the heat of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that more than 50 percent of the warming in the next two decades will come from short-lived pollutants like methane, making its immediate regulation even more important. With the U.S. being the largest natural gas producer in the world and 2015 having just been declared the hottest year on record, setting strong methane regulations to reduce leakage and waste is, according to the White House, “critical to our overall effort to address climate change.”

In addition to cutting climate-warming methane emissions, the new standards will curb emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and carcinogens like benzene, protecting public health as well. VOCs and NOx can lead to the production of ground-level ozone and smog which can lead to reduced visibility on public lands and respiratory complications for outdoor enthusiasts. Former BLM directors Bob Abbey and Mike Dombeck have stressed the dangers of air pollution in basins such as San Juan, Uintah, and Upper Green River, in part due to pollution from oil and gas operations.

“Beyond their climate implications, these regulations will begin to minimize waste of a valuable energy resource, ensuring that taxpayers are compensated for use of our public lands, as well as reduce accompanying toxic air pollutants that are harming local communities,” said the League of Conservation Voters in a statement. “Today’s proposal is a win all around: for our environment, public health, taxpayers, and our energy security.”

The BLM’s proposed rule comes on the heels of the EPA’s proposed rule to reduce methane pollution from new and modified oil and gas operations. Together these rules aim to fufil the White House’s goal of reducing methane emissions by 40 – 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025.

Jenny Rowland is the Research and Advocacy Associate for the Public Lands Project at Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter @jennyhrowland