By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday published the first U.S. regulations to target methane emissions from new or modified oil and gas facilities, one of the key remaining pieces of the Obama administration's climate change strategy.
The rule, first proposed last August, outlines safeguards for preventing the escape of methane from new and modified oil and natural gas infrastructure, the largest source of those emissions in the United States.
It will require processing and transmission facilities to find and repair methane leaks, capture natural gas from hydraulically fractured oil wells and limit emissions from pumps and other equipment.
Companies must also submit to regulators an inventory of their existing oil and gas facilities and do initial testing and monitoring of that equipment, the first step toward regulating existing sources, which accounts for 90 percent of U.S. methane emissions.
The steps are part of the Obama administration's strategy to cut methane emissions 40 to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025, the EPA said, and forms a key part of the U.S. plan to meet its Paris climate agreement pledge.
Methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide. Though it only lasts in the atmosphere for 20 years, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat.
"This is the 'low-hanging fruit' in greenhouse gas reductions," said Conrad Schneider, advocacy director for the Clean Air Task Force, an NGO. "We need to pick it right away."
Schneider welcomed changes to last year's draft - it increases the frequency with which oil and gas companies must test for leaks from compressors from twice a year to quarterly.
Methane emissions are invisible to the naked eye but can be detected with by widely-available infrared cameras.
The rule also removes exemptions carved out for low-production oil and gas wells.
Mark Brownstein, vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund's oil and gas program, said that was an important move.
"The science is showing that leaks or equipment malfunctions can pop up anywhere at anytime and that big emissions can be the result of a number of small sources," he said.
Industry groups criticized the EPA for adding a "duplicative" rule to a sector they say has already reduced methane emissions.
Imposing a one-size-fits-all scheme could stifle innovation and discourage investment in new technologies to reduce emissions, said Kyle Isakower, vice president of regulatory policy at the American Petroleum Institute.
(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Marguerita Choy)