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Obama Tells Oil and Gas Companies to Get a Grip on Methane Emissions

For the second Friday in a row, the White House says it's updating a 30-year-old rule coving the fossil fuel industry — And, for the second time in two weeks, environmentalists say it's a good start.
Photo by Eric Gay/AP

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For the second Friday in a row, seeking to cut planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, the Obama administration proposed updating 30-year-old rules governing fossil fuel extraction.

Last week, it was halting leases to coal companies on federal land while the Department of Interior reviews its policies. Today, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell proposed rules aimed at curbing methane emissions from oil and natural gas operations, which would limit gas flaring and force companies to capture leaking methane, raising the cost of fracking on public land.


"I think most people would agree that we should be using our nation's natural gas to power our economy — not wasting it by venting and flaring it into the atmosphere," Jewell said today in a statement. "We need to modernize decades-old standards to reflect existing technologies so that we can cut down on harmful methane emissions and use this captured natural gas to generate power and provide a return to taxpayers, tribes, and states for this public resource."

Methane is 25 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide over a 100-year time scale, and there's plenty of it at stake — the United States is the world's largest natural gas producer, and domestic oil production is at its highest in nearly 30 years. Oil and natural gas producers, as well as refiners and chemical companies, often burn off, or "flare," unwanted gas, rather than capturing them, which can produce high levels of methane.

Related: Obama Halts New Coal Mining Leases on Federal Lands

From 2009 to 2014, the amount of gas lost through venting, flaring, and leaks would have powered more than five million homes for a year, Jewell said. And according to the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Neil Korne, the gas saved from the new regulations could supply the yearly energy to every household in Dallas and Denver combined.

The rule bolsters one of the administration's long-term environmental goals — cutting methane emissions from the oil and gas sector 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025 — and is consistent with the president's Clean Power Plan, which requires a 32 percent reduction in US carbon emission from 2005 levels by 2030.


Environmental groups were guarded in their praise for the new methane rules. Meleah Geertsma, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called them an "important start" but said they "fall short" of tackling the entire problem, leaving other sources of leaks unaddressed.

"At a minimum, the administration should require the industry to put all of the available and cost-effective measures in place to curb this rampant air pollution problem. That's true not just for public lands—but all oil and gas operations, new and old, nationwide," Geertsma said in a statement. "Moreover, the administration should build on its historic decision to suspend new coal leases on our nation's publicly owned lands — home to America's last wild places and drinking water supplies for thousands of people — by banning all new fossil fuel leasing there."

Bill Snape, senior counsel with the Center for Biological Diversity, agreed.

"Plugging existing leaks is important and we're glad it's finally happening, but this rule is too weak and riddled with unnecessary exemptions and loopholes and does not get us off the hook in fighting climate pollution," Snape said in a statement. "We need to stop digging for these fossil fuels in the first place. If President Obama is serious about stemming the climate crisis, he can start now – today – by banning new federal leases for oil, coal, and gas and keeping these pollutants in the ground."


Related: Watch Senator James Inhofe Throw a Snowball on the Senate Floor to Prove Climate Change Doesn't Exist

But predictably whenever Obama seeks federal action — and particularly on environmental issues — the backlash came fierce and fast.

"We share the desire to reduce emissions and are leading efforts because capturing more natural gas helps us deliver more affordable energy to consumers," Erik Milito, director of the American Petroleum Institute's Upstream and Industry Operations, said in a statement. "The incentive is built-in, and existing Bureau of Land Management guidelines already require conservation. Another duplicative rule at a time when methane emissions are falling and on top of an onslaught of other new BLM and EPA regulations could drive more energy production off federal lands. That means less federal revenue, fewer jobs, higher costs for consumers, and less energy security."

In a statement that almost seems to be trolling environmentalists, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW), noted the timing, "even the impending DC Snowstorm" couldn't halt Obama's "war against domestic fossil fuel production."

"This duplicative and unnecessary rule is the latest effort aimed at shoring up the president's global warming legacy at the expense of the oil and gas industry, which has been the lone bright spot in the economy over the last seven years." Inhofe said. " In typical fashion, this is a solution in search of a problem as the Obama administration continues its 'crucify them' approach to US job creators whose business doesn't rely only on costly government handouts."


The proposed rules won't take effect immediately — the public will have 60 days to submit comments on the proposal once it is published in the Federal Register, and BLM will hold public meetings on the proposed rule in February and March.

A months-long natural gas leak outside of Los Angeles has brought scrutiny to the issue of methane emissions at wells and along pipelines across the country.

Since late October, when the leak was detected, thousands of residents of the nearby Porter Ranch neighborhood have been force to relocate. Southern California Gas Company said on Monday that a relief well may be able to stem the leak by late February.

Related: It's Going to Be Weeks — Maybe Months — Before the Biggest Gas Leak in the US Is Plugged

Follow Darren Ankrom on Twitter: @darrenankrom