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Methane Rules Proposed for New Wells

The Obama administration laid out a blueprint Wednesday for the first regulations to cut down on methane emissions from new natural gas wells, aiming to curb the discharge by roughly half.

(Portions from Politico) Relying on the Clean Air Act, the rules join a host of others that President Obama has ordered in an effort to slow global warming despite opposition to new laws in Congress that has only hardened since the midterm elections.

The White House set a new target for the U.S. to cut methane emissions by 40 percent to 45 percent by 2025 compared to 2012 levels. To meet that goal, the EPA will issue a proposal affecting oil and gas production, while the Interior Department will update its standards for drilling to reduce leakage from wells on public lands.

The White House said it won’t have specific estimates on the costs to industry, but Dan Utech, Obama’s climate and energy advisor said, “There are significant, highly cost-effective opportunities for reducing methane emissions from this sector. We’re confident we can do this in a cost-effective way.”

Methane has grown as a concern for environmentalists amid the ongoing boom in drilling for oil and natural gas in the U.S. These rules will target new or modified natural gas wells, meaning thousands of existing wells won’t have to comply. The Obama administration left open the possibility it could regulate methane from existing wells in the future and asked the energy industry to take voluntarily steps to curb emissions in the meantime.

The methane plans come at a particularly sensitive moment for Obama’s environmental agenda. Republicans, incensed over the President’s use of executive action to end run Congress on climate and other issues, have made rolling back those actions one of their first orders of business this year.

Obama’s intention to eventually force industry to cut methane emissions has long been part of his broader strategy on climate change, and Wednesday’s announcement may prove to be incremental.

Last year, the White House said the EPA would study how methane is released during drilling and determine whether it needed new regulations, so this announcement was not a surprise. But the key details – how the regulations will affect industry’s bottom line and how deeply they’ll reduce greenhouse gases – won’t come until the government formally proposes the rule later this year.

Officials couldn’t say how far the rules will go toward meeting Obama’s goal to cut overall greenhouse gas emissions up to 28 percent by 2025, other than that the contribution would be “significant.” But environmentalists argue that cutting methane is key to curbing climate change, and some scientists have said that without methane controls, the country’s shift from coal to natural gas will have less of an environmental benefit.

The oil and gas industry insisted such rules aren’t necessary because methane emissions are already on the decline, and said gas producers are already working to reduce methane leakage. After all, methane is natural gas, so the less that leaks during production, the more of it that companies have left to sell.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) today issued the following statement in response to EPA’s announced methane rules:

“Studies show that while our energy production has significantly increased, methane emissions have continued to decline. This is something that should be celebrated, not bound by new red tape. Our success has been – and should continue to be – rooted in new efficiencies created through technology and innovation, a commitment to continued safety enhancements, and greater permitting certainty. Our goal should be to modernize our energy infrastructure for the 21st century and continue to welcome successes in reducing emissions and delivering new sources of affordable energy to consumers who need it. These should be the priorities that we focus on, not creating new layers of bureaucracy that could smother such promising innovation.”

In Pennsylvania, PennFuture said the rule “missed the mark by identifying only new sources and providing no clear pathway for existing sources of emissions.” John Norbeck of PennFuture said, “The 10-year time frame is simply too long – Pennsylvanians cannot afford to wait a decade for better air for their kids. Who would wait a decade to plug a gas leak in their house?”

The group called on Gov.-elect Wolf to launch a rulemaking in his first 100 days to directly regulate methane in Pennsylvania.