The Obama administration will seek to cut down on methane leaks from oil and gas drilling by up to 45 percent under a plan expected to be unveiled this week, officials familiar with the plans said Tuesday.
U.S. officials believe tighter regulation would prevent billions of cubic feet of gas from escaping into the atmosphere from drilling rigs and leaking pipes over the next decade. The new rules aimed at methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, would go into effect by 2016.
The proposal would include new Environmental Protection Agency requirements to control methane emissions from new or modified drilling equipment anywhere in the country, according current and former U.S. officials briefed on the plans. In addition, the Department of Interior will impose tighter regulations of both new and existing oil and gas facilities located on U.S. lands, the officials said.
Administration officials declined to comment on the proposals, which were due to be formally unveiled as early as Wednesday. But two officials familiar with the plan said the overall goal was to cut methane emissions from oil and gas sector by 40 to 45 percent by the year 2025, compared to 2012 levels.
The officials said the administration’s plan also called for assisting states in controlling a suite of noxious gases that escape from oil and gas production, including volatile organic compounds that contribute to smog. EPA officials are also considering new requirements to monitor oil and gas equipment to detect leaks, the sources said.
The proposed rules are likely to face sharp opposition from industry groups as well as the new Republican-controlled Congress. Details of the plans could also disappoint environmental groups that had pushed for tighter restrictions on older gas and oil wells that are more prone to leaks.
But other experts said the proposed restrictions could play an important role in slowing climate change. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas, pound for pound, than carbon dioxide, though it breaks down in the atmosphere much more quickly.
“Speed matters in climate protection,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House staff member on climate change, reacting to reports of the new proposal. “Because methane dissipates in the atmosphere in about a decade, cutting it now can help reduce warming relatively quickly from what it would otherwise be, with some potential to lessen near-term climate impacts and help forestall climatic tipping points.”
Methane accounts for about 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and the biggest single source of it — 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 of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
The problem of leaking methane has attracted increased attention in recent months following 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.
Industrial groups have opposed new regulations on methane, arguing that oil and gas companies already are making substantial progress in reducing the leaks that cut into profits. Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute, said new rules would make U.S. companies less competitive.
“Every company is strongly incentivized to capture methane and bring it to the market,” Milito told reporters at a recent news conference. “We don’t need regulation to tell us to do that.”