The Obama administration outlined a new strategy Friday for addressing methane, signaling it may move to regulate a potent greenhouse gas released into the air from hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas.
Methane accounts for nearly 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to government estimates, but recent scientific studies suggest the real number may be between 13 and 14 percent. And while methane emissions have fallen since 1990, they are set to rise by 2030 as shale oil and shale gas production expands in the United States.
The White House proposal could lead to a handful of new regulations on the oil and gas industry — which opposes any new federal rules — and on landfills. But it largely relies on voluntary actions to curb methane, which over a century is about 25 times more powerful as a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide, the largest human contributor to climate change.
Dan Utech, special assistant to the president for energy and climate change, told reporters in a conference call that the administration will work to reduce methane “through cost-effective, voluntary actions and common-sense standards.”
This spring, the Environmental Protection Agency will begin to assess the major sources of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, while the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management will start taking comment on a program to capture and sell or dispose of methane from coal mines on federal lands.
The EPA will issue regulations for new landfills this summer, consider whether to impose tighter rules on existing landfills and decide by the fall whether to impose new methane emissions limits on the oil and gas sector. Any new limits on oil and gas production would become final by the end of 2016.
The BLM will propose new standards this fall to reduce venting and flaring from oil and gas production on public lands, but that will affect only a fraction of the nation’s hydraulic fracturing operations, since most of these activities take place on private land.
Critics of the oil and gas industry have argued that methane emissions associated with shale-gas drilling offset the climate benefits of burning natural gas, which has been hailed by others as a way to sharply cut the greenhouse gas emissions that result from burning coal.
Officials from the oil industry — which accounts for 23 percent of the nation’s emissions, according to the EPA — said the industry has taken steps on its own to curb its climate impact.
“Additional regulations are not necessary and could have a chilling effect on the American energy renaissance, our economy, and our national security,” Howard Feldman, who directs regulatory and scientific affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement.
Dave McCurdy, president of the American Gas Association, said roughly 20 states are moving ahead with ambitious plans to replace leaky pipes that are a source of fugitive methane emissions.
“The time to do it is when the price of the fuel is low,” McCurdy said in an interview, noting that Georgia has replaced its cast-iron pipes statewide. “The real challenge is probably in some of the congested urban areas. There you’ve got regulators looking at the cost to consumers, and they make a trade-off.”
Joel Bluestein, a senior vice president at the environmental consulting firm ICF International, said the proposal “is certainly a good start at a coordinated effort,” although its impact will depend on how the administration follows through in the next few years.
As part of a broader international climate goal, the United States has pledged to cut its methane emissions roughly 15 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels. Since 1990, U.S. methane emissions have declined nearly 17 percent.
Steve Hamburg, chief scientist for the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, noted that “ounce for ounce, methane is 84 times as potent as a greenhouse gas over 20 years” compared to carbon dioxide.
“More than a third of the warming that we’ll see as a result of today’s emissions over the next couple of decades comes from, essentially, methane,” he said. “We need to remain focused on carbon dioxide emissions, but doing so is not enough.”
Bluestein’s firm recently completed a report for the EDF that found that the U.S. oil and gas industry could cut its methane emissions 40 percent over the next five years for less than a penny per thousand cubic feet of gas produced.
“The EPA voluntary methane programs have had a lot of success, but there’s a limit to what you get there,” Bluestein said.
When it comes to agriculture, which is now the nation’s largest source of methane emissions at 36 percent, the administration will continue to rely on voluntary measures. In June, the Agriculture and Energy departments, the EPA and dairy industry will release a “biogas roadmap” aimed at speeding the adoption of methane digesters that can convert the trapped gas into electricity.