On Wednesday, the Obama Administration announced plans to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025. The U.S. is currently the largest natural gas producer in the world and domestic oil production is at its highest level in nearly three decades. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is also a potent greenhouse gas. According to the White House methane has 25 times more heat-trapping potential than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. The IPCC has a higher measurement, putting it at 34 times more.
In 2012, methane emissions accounted for nearly 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas pollution, of this total nearly 30 percent came from the production, transmission, and distribution of oil and natural gas. Emissions from the oil and gas sector are projected to rise more than 25 percent by 2025 without substantial efforts to reduce them. According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), greenhouse gases from leaks in the oil and gas sector are equivalent to the pollution from 180 coal-fired power plants.
The Administration said it will work closely with states and industry on crafting and implementing the standards to avoid conflict or overlap. The EPA will be taking a series of steps to set emissions standards for new and modified gas wells. Existing wells will not be included in the regulations, but there is hope that industry efforts will be significant in the area. Leaking methane is undesirable for industry from an economic standpoint as well.
This spring, the Bureau of Land Management will also be releasing updated standards to reduce venting, flaring, and leaks from wells on public lands. The Department of Energy will also be contributing to the cross-agency effort by developing new technology that can detect methane losses and well as improving the process for quantifying emissions. The DOE will also take steps to encourage reduced emissions from gas transportation and distribution by working with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and distribution companies to accelerate pipeline repair and replacement.
“We are continuing to improve transparency as we intend to work closely with states and industry,” said Janet McCabe, Acting Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, on a press call. “We are looking for opportunities to use new technology. In recent months several groups have told us they are interested in pursuing their options.”
McCabe said that “combined with the rule-making the EPA will be undertaking, these efforts could set up the oil and gas sector to achieve significant methane reductions in the long term.”
McCabe said that the EPA’s efforts to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector build upon the 2012 standards for volatile organic compounds (VOC) set for those industries. Those standards also combined technologies and practices already in use in the oil and gas industries with new federal regulations. According to the White House, when fully implemented, these standards are expected to reduce 190,000 to 290,000 tons of VOC and decrease methane emissions in an amount equivalent to 33 million tons of carbon pollution per year.
“We are going to focus on rule-making for emissions sources that make the most sense to address now,” said McCabe. “Specifically the EPA plans to build on the strong foundation of the 2012 rule that set common-sense standards for VOC.”
A recent report from the EDF found that there is already a rapidly emerging methane mitigation industry. At least 76 companies, many of them small businesses, are already in the business of making equipment that can reduce methane leakage. Setting aside concerns that increased natural gas production used to generate electricity could replace renewable, low-carbon energy that would have otherwise come online, the EDF responded positively to the Administration’s announcement.
“If the reported target is correct, and if there’s a solid program offered to achieve it, then this is indeed a landmark moment,” said Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund, in a statement.
Krupp said oil and gas companies are losing enough natural gas each year to heat around six million homes and that “low-cost technology to fix the problem is readily available.” He said that “curbing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector is one of the fastest and most-effective steps we can take to slow the damage of climate change in the near term.”
The new methane rules are part of the Obama Administration’s broader commitment to reduce overall U.S. emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 and 26 to 28 percent by 2025. In lieu of congressional action, the Administration has been taking pursuing executive avenues such as the proposed Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants and increased vehicle efficiency standards.