A combination of accidental leaks and deliberate venting or flaring of methane gas from public and Native American lands released about 375 billion cubic feet of methane into the atmosphere between 2009 and 2014, according to government estimates. The leaks waste a valuable resource — the lost methane could have supplied energy for 5.1 million U.S. homes for a year — while also putting more heat-trapping greenhouse gases in to the atmosphere, U.S. officials say.
“I think most people would agree that we should be using our nation’s natural gas to power our economy – not wasting it by venting and flaring it into the atmosphere,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in announcing the proposal. “We need to modernize decades-old standards to reflect existing technologies so that we can cut down on harmful methane emissions.”
The proposed regulations — which are opposed by the oil and gas industry — are the latest in a series of initiatives aimed at lowering U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases, which scientists say are contributing to a dangerous warming of the planet. The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce similar curbs for other oil and gas operations as part of an administration-wide effort to reduce U.S. emissions of methane gas by at least 40 percent by the year 2025, compared to 2012 levels.
Methane, the main component in natural gas, is about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping the sun’s heat in the lower atmosphere, according to EPA estimates. But methane also dissipates relatively quickly —in a few decades, compared to centuries for carbon dioxide. Scientists say rapidly cutting methane pollution can buy the world’s nations more time to tackle the bigger challenge of reducing carbon emissions.
The Interior Department rules, if finalized, would impose new limits on venting and flaring — or burning off — of excess natural gas, a common practice in the oil and gas industry that prevents the buildup of pressure on wellheads. The proposals also sets standards for equipment by used energy companies and requires more frequent inspections to check for leaks, in the first significant update of the Interior Department’s regulations on methane in three decades.
Administration officials estimate that the regulations would prevent the loss about at least $115 million worth of methane a year, more than offsetting the equipment costs.
“The gas saved would be enough to supply every household in the cities of Dallas and Denver combined, every year,” said Neil Kornze, director of the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that oversees the bulk of government-owned lands in Western states.
Industry officials criticized the proposals as burdensome and unnecessary, saying energy companies already are adopting voluntary measures to prevent the loss of valuable methane.
“Another duplicative rule at a time when methane emissions are already falling — and on top of an onslaught of other new BLM and EPA regulations — could drive more energy production off federal lands,” said Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade association for oil and gas companies. “That means less federal revenue, fewer jobs, higher costs for consumers, and less energy security.”
But environmentalists and watchdog groups praised the proposal as a boon for taxpayers and the environment.
“For too long, oil and gas companies have been allowed to waste billions of cubic feet in natural gas and avoid paying hundreds of millions in royalties,” said Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a fiscal watchdog group.
Josh Mantell, carbon management campaign manager for The Wilderness Society, applauded the proposed rule as a significant step in controlling greenhouse gas emissions. “These guidelines would have the added benefit of reducing pollution that causes disease and emissions that contribute to climate change,” Mantell said.
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