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Obama Administration Issues New Rules on Methane Emissions From the Oil and Gas Industry

Climate change is a legacy issue for the US president and the latest rule is among a growing list of executive actions aimed at cutting domestic greenhouse gas emissions.

by Robert S. Eshelman
May 12 2016, 6:40pm

Photo by Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

The Obama administration issued new rules on Thursday for reducing climate-warming methane emissions from the oil and natural gas sector, continuing its string of executive branch actions aimed at addressing climate change.

The regulations cover only new or substantially modified oil and gas facilities: wells, processors, storage facilities, and pipelines. The administration says it will be up to the next president to lead the charge on reining in emissions from existing sources.

US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rules highlight President Barack Obama's commitment to addressing climate change, and limiting pollutants that compromise public health.

"Today, we are underscoring the administration's commitment to finding commonsense ways to cut methane — a potent greenhouse gas fueling climate change — and other harmful pollution from the oil and gas sector," she said. "Together these new actions will protect public health and reduce pollution linked to cancer and other serious health effects while allowing industry to continue to grow and provide a vital source of energy for Americans across the country."

Obama has committed to cutting US methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025. The EPA estimates that the new rule will reduce methane emissions by 510,000 tons in 2025, which is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions produced by nearly 2.5 million automobiles in a year.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, which on a 20-year time scale is 84 times more powerful at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Congressional Republicans and oil and gas industry representatives were quick to denounce the regulations, which they said are unnecessary in light of voluntary efforts on the part of the industry to reduce pollution.

Kyle Isakower, vice president of regulatory and economic policy at the American Petroleum Institute, an industry lobby, said oil and gas companies are already investing in limiting pollution.

"It doesn't make sense that the administration would add unreasonable and overly burdensome regulations when the industry is already leading the way in reducing emissions," he said. "Imposing a one-size-fits-all scheme on the industry could actually stifle innovation and discourage investments in new technologies that could serve to further reduce emissions."

(Image via US Energy Information Administration)

Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, which oversees the EPA and federal environmental laws, said the administration was "punitively attacking" the oil and gas industry.

"These costly mandates will hinder economic growth and job creation for no meaningful environmental benefit," he said. "There is no need to target our domestic energy industry that has served a source of light during President Obama's anemic economic recovery. EPA's actions are politically driven, unnecessary, and geared solely toward getting these regulations out the door before President Obama leaves office."

Inhofe once called climate change the greatest hoax perpetrated on the American public.

Related: This Could Be One of the Greatest Hurdles for Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the US

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, called methane emissions a "tremendous threat to our planet," and a "needless waste of valuable resources."

Environmental groups and industry analysts have long argued that methane from oil and gas production could easily — and relatively cheaply — be captured and sold instead of leaking into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.

"The US oil and gas industry pumps out almost 10 million metric tons of methane pollution a year from thousands of sites in communities all across the nation," Krupp said. "It's a tremendous threat to our climate, and a needless waste of valuable resources. Cutting this pollution is the fastest, cheapest path to slow the warming we will otherwise see in the next 20 years."

The president of the League of Conservation Voters, Gene Karpinski, said the methane rules confirmed US obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the UN climate agreement that was forged in Paris last year.

"President Obama continues to build his legacy of action on climate by finalizing the first-ever limits on methane pollution from the oil and gas industry," he said. "We look forward to continuing to work with the administration as we turn to reducing methane pollution from existing sources in the oil and gas industry."

Follow Robert S. Eshelman on Twitter: @RobertSEshelman

Editor's note: This article was corrected to reflect that the administration says the task of regulating existing oil and natural gas facilities for methane emissions will be left up to the next president.