Oil pump jacks work behind a natural gas flare near Watford City, N.D. (Eric Gay/AP)

The Obama administration announced plans Wednesday to dramatically reduce the amount of methane seeping from oil and gas installations, taking aim at a pollutant that accounts for nearly 10 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted by U.S. sources each year.

The combination of new regulations and voluntary measures is expected to slash industrial emissions of methane by 40 to 45 percent over the next decade, saving money for taxpayers while clamping down on a major cause of climate change, White House officials said.

If implemented, the plan would prevent the loss of 180 billion cubic feet of methane, enough to heat 2 million American homes for a year, the officials said. Methane, the main component in natural gas, escapes from drilling rigs and pipelines during energy production and transportation.

“This strategy will benefit the climate, the economy and public health,” Dan Utech, special assistant to President Obama on energy and climate change, said in unveiling what he called an “ambitious” strategy for cutting methane waste.

The widely anticipated plan would include tougher Environmental Protection Agency requirements for new or modified oil and gas wells and processing facilities and a tightening of regulations for companies operating on public lands managed by the Interior Department. The proposed rules would be unveiled over the spring and summer and would go into effect by the middle of next year.

Methane emissions
Compared with carbon dioxide, methane persists in the atmosphere for a shorter period of time, but is many times more powerful at trapping heat. Read related story.

(Patterson Clark / The Washington Post/Source: Science, EPA)

But the plan mostly relies on existing regulations and voluntary measures to reduce methane leaks from older oil and gas facilities. Environmental groups had urged the administration to impose tighter regulations on older installations as well as new ones.

“Getting outdated technologies out of the system is going to be crucial both to meeting the president’s goal and avoiding the worst consequences of climate change,” said Tim Ballo, lead counsel on methane pollution for Earthjustice, a public-interest law firm. “EPA has an obligation under the Clean Air Act to limit methane pollution from both new and existing sources in the oil and gas industry.”

Administration officials defended the approach, noting much of the projected increase in methane emissions over the coming decade would come from new and expanded oil and gas fields. “That’s the growth area,” said Janet McCabe, acting EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation. McCabe said the agency was working with state regulators and industry groups on a series of initiatives intended to prevent methane leaks from older facilities.

“We believe the steps outlined . . . will allow the industry to continue to grow,” she said.

Still, the proposals drew sharp criticism from industry groups, which contend that methane emissions are already falling because of voluntary practices intended to curb leaks. Trade groups said tighter regulations could undercut U.S. competitiveness.

“Emissions will continue to fall as operators innovate and find new ways to capture and deliver more methane to consumers, and existing EPA and state regulations are working,” said Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute. “Another layer of burdensome requirements could actually slow down industry progress to reduce methane emissions.”

Other experts applauded the administration’s plan, saying it strikes a balance between conservation and economic growth.

“The White House has threaded the needle with this plan, requiring new oil and gas facilities to install state-of-the-art controls to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, while laying the foundation for existing facilities to regulate these emissions in the future,” said S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents state regulators.

Methane gas is emitted from a variety of industrial and natural sources, including farms, livestock operations and landfills. But the biggest single source — representing nearly 30 percent — is the oil and gas industry, government figures show. Independent studies have shown that oil and gas producers lose 8 million metric tons of methane a year, or enough to provide power to every household in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

The problem of leaking methane has attracted more attention in recent months after reports of a massive methane plume over northwestern New Mexico. The 2,500-square-mile plume, detected by satellites equipped with special sensors, is believed to come from oil and gas facilities along the energy-rich San Juan Basin.

The southwestern plume, the country’s largest, reflects the collective discharge from tens of thousands of wells and represents about 600,000 metric tons of wasted methane annually, scientists say.