US proposes to cut methane from oil, gas by nearly half

AP News
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Posted: Aug 18, 2015 1:32 PM
US proposes to cut methane from oil, gas by nearly half

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration on Tuesday proposed cutting methane emissions from U.S. oil and gas production by nearly half over the next decade, part of on ongoing push by President Barack Obama to curb climate change.

The administration's target is to cut methane from oil and gas drilling by 40 to 45 percent by 2025, compared to 2012 levels. The move was not unexpected; officials had set the same goal in a preliminary blueprint in January. Still, by moving forward with the official proposal, Obama is adding to a list of energy regulations that have drawn applause from environmentalists and ire from energy advocates.

To help meet the goal, the administration issued a rule cutting emissions from new and modified oil and natural gas wells, along with updated standards for drilling to reduce leakage from wells on public lands.

The rule would require energy producers to find and repair leaks at oil and gas wells and capture gas that escapes from wells that use a common drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Officials estimate the rule would cost industry from $320 million to $420 million in 2025, with reduced health care costs and other benefits totaling about $460 million to $550 million.

"Today, through our cost-effective proposed standards, we are underscoring our commitment to reducing the pollution fueling climate change and protecting public health while supporting responsible energy development, transparency and accountability," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement.

The administration is expected to finalize the rules next year shortly before Obama leaves office.

Methane, the key component of natural gas, tends to leak during oil and gas production. Although it makes up just a sliver of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, it is far more powerful than the more prevalent gas carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. That makes methane a top target for environmentalists concerned about global warming.

With his presidency drawing to a close, Obama has been in a rush to propose and then finalize sweeping regulations targeting greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

The methane rule follows a landmark regulation Obama finalized earlier this month to cut carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants by 32 percent. The plan, the centerpiece of Obama's climate change strategy, drew immediate legal challenges from power companies and Republican-led states.

Obama also has proposed regulations targeting carbon pollution from airplanes and set new standards to improve fuel efficiency and reduce carbon dioxide pollution from trucks and vans.

In total, Obama has set a goal to cut overall U.S. emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent over the next decade, as he seeks to leave a legacy of using the full range of his executive power to fight climate change and encourage other countries to do the same.

Katie Brown, a spokeswoman for Energy In Depth, an oil industry group, said methane emissions from fracking are already declining because of improved drilling techniques.

"Cheap natural gas has delivered substantial climate benefits that came largely from voluntary reductions by industry and technological innovation," she said. "Federal regulations, especially if crafted poorly, could inflict more pain on the men and women who work in the oil and gas industry."

The administration said the rule would apply only to emissions from new or modified natural gas wells, meaning thousands of existing wells won't have to comply.

Environmentalists say that the ambitious goals announced under the proposed rule would be difficult to meet without targeting existing wells.

David Doniger, climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, called the new rule "a good start." But Doniger said, "EPA needs to follow up by setting methane leakage standards for existing oil and gas operations nationwide."

Janet McCabe, acting assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation, told reporters that the new rule could reduce emissions by as much as 25 to 30 percent by 2025. She did not specify how the remainder of the 45-percent goal would be met, but experts said the administration would likely rely on voluntary efforts, state regulations and an Interior Department rule covering drilling on public lands to meet that target.

The methane rule comes one day after Obama approved a final permit allowing Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean off the Alaska coast. Environmental groups have criticized the move, saying the permit clashes with the message Obama will deliver when he visits Alaska this month to emphasize the dangers of climate change.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that U.S. Arctic waters hold 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Shell is eager to explore in a basin that company officials say could be a "game changer" for domestic production.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday opposed Obama's decision to allow drilling in the Arctic Ocean, writing in a Twitter post that "The Arctic is a unique treasure. Given what we know, it's not worth the risk" of a major spill to allow drilling.