Obama administration to tighten controls on oil and gas industry’s methane emissions

Oil and gas exploration wells and associated infrastructure emit methane to the atmosphere. Methane is the second-most common greenhouse gas. Image courtesy Wikimedia.
Oil and gas exploration wells and associated infrastructure emit methane to the atmosphere. Methane is the second-most common greenhouse gas. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has decided to move forward with rules that could reduce methane emissions from oil and gas exploration wells and associated equipment by up to 45 percent by 2025.

The new regulations are expected to be proposed this summer and to be finalized in 2016.

“Achieving the Administration’s goal would save up to 180 billion cubic feet of natural gas in 2025, enough to heat more than 2 million homes for a year and continue to support businesses that manufacture and sell cost-effective technologies to identify, quantify, and reduce methane emissions,” a statement by the White House said.

The Wednesday announcement from the White House also said that the new regulations would limit volatile organic compound emissions from oil and gas infrastructure.

The new regulation, which is expected to be proposed during the coming summer, would apply only to new or altered oil and gas exploration or extraction systems, at least initially.

The White House said that it would encourage the oil and gas industry to voluntarily reduce emissions from existing oil and gas wells and associated pumps, booster and compressor stations, and well site delivery systems.

“If the reported target is correct, and if there’s a solid program offered to achieve it, then this is indeed a landmark moment,” Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement released Tuesday after the New York Times reported the administration’s planned announcement. “Methane pollution is both an environmental problem and a needless waste of energy, and we need responsible oversight of an issue that industry has failed to address.”

Methane is the country’s second-most common contributor to atmospheric warming. It accounts for nine percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions but is a far more effective trapper of heat than carbon dioxide.

According to the most recent U.S. inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, during 2011 the country’s oil and gas producers leaked, flared, or vented enough methane to match the emissions of about 200 coal-fired power plants.

Administration efforts to limit methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure on private lands are not the only planned federal programs aimed at cutting methane accumulation in the atmosphere. President Barack Obama called for inter-agency efforts to limit methane emissions in his March 2014 Climate Action Plan.

The U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management will likely propose one of the more impactful of those efforts this spring, a regulation that would limit methane emissions by oil and gas producers operating on U.S. public lands under its control.

Methane emissions from oil and gas facilities have declined by about 11 percent since 1990, according to the U.S. government’s 2014 greenhouse gas emissions inventory, but emissions of the compound have trended upward in recent years. Moreover, a paper published last year in Science suggested that such emissions may be under-estimated by as much as 50 percent.