The entire natural gas system could be subject to new U.S. EPA regulations under the White House interagency guidance on methane released today.
The 15-page document, which was called for under the president's Climate Action Plan last year, instructs the agency to consider regulating the potent short-lived greenhouse gas at each of five stops along the natural gas supply chain. Opportunities for future rules include hydraulically fractured wells that produce oil along with gas, leaky production and transportation infrastructure, pneumatic devices, compressor stations and liquid unloading -- the devises that keep oil and gas flowing from the wellhead.
EPA has previously said it will release white papers to assess opportunities for methane reduction in each of these areas.
Those papers will be released this spring and will undergo independent technical review and public comment. The agency will then announce this fall whether it will move forward with any new regulatory actions in any of these areas. If it does, today's guidance commits the agency to finalize those rules by the end of 2016 -- before Obama's second term draws to a close.
White House energy and climate adviser Dan Utech, who lead the interagency task force that produced the guidance, said EPA will take steps to ratchet down methane from oil and natural gas regardless of whether it decides to develop regulations.
"We know that there are a lot of cost-effective reductions that are available out there," Utech said on a call with reporters.
The oil and gas rules are likely to draw more fire than any other aspect of the White House's methane plan, which includes actions by the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Interior, Labor and Transportation, as well as EPA.
Industry has said that Clean Air Act regulations are unnecessary because escaped methane is bad for their bottom line. Methane is the largest component of gas.
But environmentalists have pushed for EPA to promulgate rules under Section 111(d) of the act for methane released in gas production, transportation and processing.
The guidance states that EPA will consider promulgating rules under Section 111 and Section 182 of the Clean Air Act. Both sections of the law would require the agency to put forward a technical standard to reduce emissions that states would implement, but environmentalists see a significant difference between the two.
"Our view is that a methane strategy under 111 would be much more effective," said David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Where Section 111(d) would target methane directly, Section 182 would focus on smog and only capture the greenhouse gas as a "bycatch." Doniger said this would mean methane would only be reduced in areas that are out of attainment for ozone. Petroleum producers in Los Angeles would be regulated, but hydraulic fracturing operations on the Bakken Shale oil field might not be.
While the oil and gas rules are likely to get top billing, the guidance also commits EPA to propose an updated standard this summer for methane from new landfills and to consider revisions to an existing landfill methane rule. The document also summarizes new and existing actions agencies will take to rein in emissions from coal mines and agriculture, and steps they will take to improve data on methane release.
The document announces a new collaboration between DOE, USDA and EPA to find voluntary opportunities to reduce emissions from the dairy industry, to be unveiled in June. It also calls for an expansion of the voluntary Natural Gas STAR program.
Utech said on the call that the guidance would make an important contribution to the administration's goal of reducing overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The guidance comes as EPA moves ahead with CO2 rules for new and existing power plants -- and after White House announcements earlier this year on climate resilience and data sharing.
"While no single step can reverse the effects of climate change, we have a moral obligation to our kids to leave them a planet that's not damaged," he said. "The release of this strategy gets us one step closer to achieving that."