The Obama administration began the final stage for reviewing proposed regulations designed to cut methane leaks from oil and natural gas wells by between 40 and 45 percent. These long-awaited regulations will impact the fracking industry in Colorado and other states. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas that has more than 20-times the global warming power of carbon dioxide, is the main component of natural gas.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent the proposed regulations to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) last Tuesday. However, the news was lost in the coverage of major Supreme Court decisions on Obamacare and Marriage Equality.
“This routine step is part of EPA’s January 2015 commitment under President Obama’s Climate Action Plan to address methane and smog-forming emissions from the oil and gas industry,” EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said in a statement Tuesday.
The new rules are part of a large effort by the Obama administration to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas production. The two regulations that the EPA and Interior Department proposed targets methane from new and modified oil and gas wells and equipment responsible for venting and flaring on public lands. It does not address existing leaking wells.
The agency received immediate criticism from drillers, who said that they are already working to reduce leaks because it is in their economic interest. This is an automatic reaction for industry to oppose any new regulations. A standard response is that they are already working to solve the problem.
A new study released in February by researchers at Colorado State University and Carnegie Melon indicates that the EPA has been vastly underestimating emissions of methane from natural gas wells and fracking sites. Leaks in both production and storage are dumping far more of this potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere than we were led to believe. Another researcher found that both shale gas and conventional natural gas have a larger greenhouse gas footprint than do coal or oil, especially for the primary uses of residential and commercial heating.
The magnitude of the methane leaks shows that industry is not working very hard to reduce leaks, if at all. If they considered it in their economic interest, as they claim, there would be no methane leaks. It is more profitable to pollute than to stop the leaks. That is why the regulations are necessary.
Not all environmentalists are happy with the proposed rules. Jessika Trancik, assistant professor at MIT, criticized the rules in February because they did not target methane emissions from existing wells. She also said a concern shared among scientists and researchers is that the 40 percent to 45 percent reduction target might not be high enough.
“When we look at timing of emissions and are counting methane against carbon dioxide it may be on the lower end of what’s needed” to reach the overall goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 30 percent by 2025.
Dina Kruger, who served as director of climate change at the EPA under both Bush administrations, echoed the sentiment that zeroing in on existing wells and equipment is important to reach the target, but warned not to underestimate President Obama’s action.
“By deciding to regulate methane directly, even if only new sources at this time, EPA has set the stage to reduce more in the future,” she said. That is what the industry fears.
It is obvious that the industry will fight the regulations despite rhetoric that they are fixing the problem themselves. It is likely that Republicans in Congress will try and block them. A Republican president should one win the White House in 2016, might also roll them back. A challenge in the Federal Courts is also likely given the victory scored by the coal industry in the Supreme Court last week.
Meanwhile, any reduction in methane emissions will be a big boost to the efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses and slow the warming of the planet responsible for climate change. Stay tuned.
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