Climate

EDF's Symons says regulating existing source emissions critical to meeting White House methane targets

The White House this week unveiled its plans to regulate methane emissions from the oil and gas sector through a combination of voluntary and regulatory approaches. How will the Obama administration structure its rule proposal to meet its target of cutting methane 40-45 percent by 2025, back to 2012 levels? During today's OnPoint, Jeremy Symons, senior director of climate policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, discusses the plan and its impact on overall greenhouse gas emissions. He also discusses the role of natural gas as part of the administration's overall energy and climate policy.

Transcript

Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Jeremy Symons, senior director of climate policy at the Environmental Defense Fund. Jeremy, good to have you here.

Jeremy Symons: Great to be on again.

Monica Trauzzi: Jeremy, the White House has just unveiled its plans to regulate methane in the oil and gas sector. It's a combination of voluntary and regulatory approaches. The rule is expected to be released this summer and finalized in 2016. They established a new goal of cutting methane 40 to 45 percent by 2025 back to 2012 levels. On the spectrum of how aggressive this blueprint looks, how would you rate the administration steps?

Jeremy Symons: I give them a lot of credit for addressing an issue that's gone neglected for too long. Methane is a huge contributor to climate change as a very potent greenhouse gas, but also this is a case where good environmental policy is also good economic policy because we waste so much methane, which essentially is natural gas, to the tune of billions of dollars a year, or enough methane to heat -- or natural gas to heat 6 million houses. So the fact that he put it on the map and set an aggressive goal is the good news. The fact he has steps to move forward right now is also good news across a number of agencies. The question marks on it have to do with the road map of how we get all the way to those goals, and that's what we're concerned about, making sure we have aggressive implementation.

Monica Trauzzi: How significant is the move to regulate new and modified sources under Section 111-B of the Clean Air Act?

Jeremy Symons: Well, I think it's important. There hasn't been regulation to date, and this is a big source of emissions. We're talking about enough methane emissions to equate to roughly 180 coal-fired power plants in terms of its warming impact in the next 20 years. That's a big deal, and so we need steps to make sure that all the players are moving forward to take whatever really reasonable cost-effective steps, and they're very cost-effective. We're talking on the order of, according to ICF analysis and other analysis that's out there. We're talking on the order of a penny per thousand cubic feet of gas to get those kind of reductions of 40 percent or more. You know, that's a reasonable cost to move forward on this, and the move forward for new sources is really a key step to get moving on this and to regulate methane, but it doesn't get the job done by itself.

Monica Trauzzi: So -- and that's the big question, can you hit that 40 to 45 percent reduction target without also regulating existing sources? Do you think this move, using 111-B, sort of jump-starts future action to use 111-D of the Clean Air Act to then regulate existing sources?

Jeremy Symons: Well, it won't get the job done by itself. We do need to get -- to go where the tons are, and that's where the existing infrastructure of wells, of pipelines, of facilities in the oil and gas sector right now. And even if you look forward to the next five years, 90 percent or more of the emissions are still expected to come from existing facilities. So we're going to have to tackle that. Clearly the administration has outlined that they're moving forward first with new sources with the intent of looking at existing sources further. What we're concerned about is the timeline. At the end of the day, this goal is a 10-year goal. We can do it a lot faster because the technologies that we have are there today, right now, so we're going to keep pushing for that action.

Monica Trauzzi: There's no clarity coming from the administration on the costs and benefits of the plan. How dramatically could things shift once we do have those numbers in place?

Jeremy Symons: Well, I think there's been a lot of due diligence. Remember that EPA and BLM have both taken comment rather extensively before making any decision on whether to regulate, and there's a very good body of evidence out there that the costs are extremely reasonable, and in fact, if you look at what industry's saying about this, they themselves are largely saying that emissions are starting to come down, but they are taking steps, and more steps can be taken. So we've moved this debate from, you know, whether there's a problem and whether we can do something about it to really a timeline and an urgency of getting it done. I think the cost numbers will be there and I think the benefits are clear, saving billions of dollars of gas.

Monica Trauzzi: So industry points out, as you just did, that methane emissions have declined, and that's through the industry's own action and efforts. Are there redundancies, then, with what the industry is already doing?

Jeremy Symons: Well, like with all environmental problems, industry has to be a player in solving them, and it's great that there's been improvements in emissions, largely due to the fact that EPA has already had rules in place for natural gas wells. I mean, that's been a big driver of those reductions. So there's good agreement that there's a problem, the problem's big and there need to be emission reductions. I guess what's confusing listening to industry is what they're really saying. Are they saying that this is an issue that enough has been done and we don't need to do any more, having methane leaks on the order of 6 million homes a year of wasted energy? Is that okay, right? Or are they saying that, if we go forward and do something, that we can do it on our own? That we just don't need regulations but we can hit this 40, 45 percent goal on our own. I haven't seen them put forward a target, and for them to say trust me at this point without delineating their plan, it's really hard in an industry that has thousands of players. It makes sense for there to be regulations that create a common level playing field.

Monica Trauzzi: The release comes ahead of the president delivering his State of the Union address next week. How do you expect he'll address natural gas in his speech this year?

Jeremy Symons: Well, the president's had a pretty clear message on trying to build America's energy economy while reducing greenhouse gases and other pollution, so this fits squarely into it. The job's not done. There's still a lot of work that needs to be done on reducing impacts on water side of natural gas, and this doesn't even do the job on methane. It leaves unanswered what's going to happen with the existing facilities. I think this fits squarely into any message that he would have because it's a balanced approach of making sure that the natural gas that we're producing right now is done as sensibly as we can when it comes to air pollution and methane.

Monica Trauzzi: Do you think there's been a shift in rhetoric on natural gas coming out of this administration compared to what we were hearing at the beginning of the Obama presidency? Has there been a shift?

Jeremy Symons: I think it's been fairly consistent as far as I can tell, but what hasn't been done is the steps taken because the administration and President Obama have been talking for a while about doing natural gas right, and that's been in several State of the Unions and other addresses. And here we're seeing a big step to put that into play and put that into action, not in a way that's going to shut down industry or any draconian arguments you might see on it, but in a way that actually takes off the table one of the big question marks about natural gas, which is fundamentally is this resource that has any benefits compared to, say, coal and electric and electric generating capacity in terms of climate change.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. We'll end it there on that note. The discussion continues. Thank you for coming on the show.

Jeremy Symons: It's great to be on.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]

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