White House announces plan to slash industry’s methane emissions

By Gayathri Vaidyanathan | 01/14/2015 09:04 AM EST

Obama administration officials this morning announced a plan under which the oil and gas industry would have to cut methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025. U.S. EPA will issue new regulations this summer under the Clean Air Act, and a final rule would be in place in 2016.

This would mark the first time that methane, a potent greenhouse gas that has a global warming potential 86 times that of carbon dioxide on a 20-year time scale, would be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

The oil and gas industry is the second-largest industrial emitter of methane in the United States, following landfills, contributing 30 percent of the nation’s emissions. Emissions from the industry are likely to grow by 25 percent by 2025, and the new regulations would avoid wastage of 180 billion cubic feet of methane, which is the primary component of natural gas, in 2025, Dan Utech, special assistant to the president for energy and climate change, said this morning in a press call.


"I think we are outlining today a comprehensive set of steps that will have benefits for the climate, for the economy and for public health," Utech said.

EPA’s rulemaking will be done under Section 111(b) of the Clean Air Act, which allows regulation of new sources along the oil and gas supply chain. So the new regulations would apply to new and modified pieces of equipment only and would leave older pieces of equipment unregulated.

EPA will for now rely on voluntary actions by industry to regulate emissions from existing sources, Utech said.

"We are making clear that we agree that we need to get reductions from existing sources; there’s no question about that," Utech said. "We are starting, in terms of our regulatory tools at EPA, with new and modified sources. That’s where the new investment is; that’s where increases in emissions are coming from."

EPA also announced guidelines to target smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from existing pieces of equipment, particularly in areas that do not meet ozone health standards. Since methane is co-emitted with VOCs, this would also target the greenhouse gas, said Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

The announcement is unlikely to please industry, which has voiced support for EPA’s regulation of VOCs but pushed back strongly against methane regulations under the Clean Air Act.

Emissions from other parts of the oil and gas supply chain will primarily be targeted through voluntary actions, EPA announced.

Environmental groups questioned EPA’s focus on new sources, which leaves existing sources to be targeted through voluntary actions. Studies have suggested that as much as 90 percent of the emissions from the production sector in 2018 would come from sources that were existing in 2011.

"While setting methane standards for the first time is an important step, failing to immediately regulate existing oil and gas equipment nationwide misses 90 percent of the methane pollution from the industry," said Conrad Schneider, advocacy director of the Clean Air Task Force. "The administration is proposing to fight methane pollution with one hand tied behind its back, not using the full range of powers under the Clean Air Act to cut these emissions."