The Biden administration is advancing plans to cut methane emissions sharply by the end of the decade, using tougher proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulations and other efforts to hit the mark, it said Tuesday, in a move that will frustrate an oil and gas industry that says it’s been cleaning up its act without a government push.
The action is part of a U.S. pledge made with the European Union to cut overall methane emissions by 30% below 2020 levels by 2030. On Tuesday, the U.S. and the EU announced at the U.N.’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow that nearly 90 heads of state from around the world had joined this methane effort. This includes pledges from the other top methane emitters, including Indonesia, Pakistan, Argentina, Mexico, Nigeria, Iraq, Vietnam and Canada.
Brazil, a major methane contributor, has said it will join. Holdouts include China, Russia and India, which combined generate about 30% of methane emissions.
Methane is more potent than carbon emissions but lasts for a shorter time in the atmosphere.
Environmental groups say it’s perhaps the biggest single thing governments can do to improve the chances of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
“Today’s proposals represent essential progress and long-demanded action to rein in methane emissions from oil and gas operations,” said Julie McNamara, deputy policy director in the climate and energy program at Union of Concerned Scientists.
“For too long, we’ve known the damaging impacts of this potent heat-trapping pollutant, known that oil and gas operations continue to be a major source of it, and known that solutions to drive rapid reductions across the sector already exist–yet still, oil and gas operations continue to release untenably high and entirely preventable methane emissions,” she said. “This is no accident, but rather the result of a concerted industry lobbying campaign to block, delay and roll back federal regulations.”
On Tuesday, the EPA will propose new methane rules that regulate leak detection and other factors. The action reverses the Trump administration’s nullification of Obama administration efforts in this area and goes further, a senior Biden official said.
The EPA rule will apply to new operations for natural gas, including the regulation of natural gas that is produced as a byproduct of oil production, and that is frequently vented or flared.
And for the first time, under the Clean Air Act, the regulation will require that states develop plans that will reduce methane emissions from existing sources, including from an estimated 300,000 oil and gas well sites.
Overall, the proposed requirements would reduce emissions from covered sources, equipment and operations by approximately 75%, the administration estimates.
But the path for tougher regulation isn’t without uncertainty. The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to consider the scope of the EPA’s authority to restrict greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants.
industries through upstream and downstream production contribute about 30% of U.S. methane emissions. That includes pipeline production, through delivery into buildings and emissions from buildings. Other sources of methane emissions are landfills, abandoned oil and gas wells and abandoned mines, as well as the agricultural sector.
Cutting methane emissions is “simply the most effective strategy we have to slow global warming in the near term,” Biden said in his Monday remarks to the COP26 summit.
Biden has also taken steps to keep oil and gas production pumping, which brings out the sharpest criticism of environmental groups. He and other leading Democrats earlier this year urged OPEC to keep up production in order to keep costs down for businesses and consumers.
The U.S. methane plan also targets landfills, the second largest industrial source of the gas, though this effort will come largely through voluntary cleanup.
The Department of Agriculture has initiated an incentive-based program that Biden called for in an earlier executive order, which will reward farmers and ranchers for reducing methane emissions and sequestering carbon across multiple USDA programs.
A separate regulatory body will be proposing a series of safety rules around leaks that will cover part of around 3 million miles of pipeline.
The Department of the Interior will also review venting and flaring of methane from oil and gas operations that rent federal land.
The Biden administration has already included as part of its infrastructure bill awaiting congressional action funding to plug old oil and gas wells.
Methane restrictions have historically brought on legal fights. But such standards will be an “inevitable part of the energy transition, and the oil and gas industry is really going to need to get on top of this,” Sasha Mackler, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Energy Project, told S&P Global earlier this year.
“Over time, this is going to be a cost of doing business here in the U.S.,” Mackler said. “There’s really no question that these regulations are coming and that they’re needed, and so we may see some consternation and some shuffling amongst the players in the industry, but I really do think that it’s unavoidable.”
Reducing methane emissions is a priority for the industry to address the risks of climate change, the trade group American Petroleum Institute has said.
“Thanks to innovation and industry actions
U.S. methane emissions rates in the largest producing regions have declined 70% in the past decade, even as America produces more affordable, reliable and cleaner natural gas,” the API says on its site.
Clean air and other environmental policy groups generally welcomed the methane efforts.
“For too long this potent super pollutant has fallen off the agenda at major climate summits while its emissions have risen to all-time highs, pushing our planet closer to potentially irreversible tipping points,” said Sarah Smith, program director, super pollutants at Clean Air Task Force. “By launching the Global Methane Pledge on the world stage, they’ve made sure that methane will be front and center — where it belongs.”