Cheat Sheet: Obama's Methane Rules

  • The EPA's new guidelines are designed to limit emissions from wells like this one, in Washington County, Pa. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

January 23, 2015

The Obama administration made a long-anticipated announcement that it would, for the first time ever, regulate methane from oil and gas wells. The proposal comes as the U.S. is undergoing a fracking boom that has put it at or near the top in oil and gas production in the world. At the same time, the Obama administration is trying to push through curbs on greenhouse gases like the kinds created by oil and gas drilling.

After putting forward a plan to curb climate-altering gasses from the power industry last year, the Obama administration upped its efforts to stem global warming. 

The administration's forthcoming methane rules comes as the U.S. fracking boom has brought down the price of natural gas, allowing it to replace coal, a much dirtier fossil fuel, as a power source. That’s helped bring down the U.S.’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, but the Obama administration wants to bring down methane emissions as well.

Here are four things to know about the EPA's newest plans: 

METHANE THE POTENT

Methane is the main component of natural gas, and produces much less carbon dioxide than burning coal. So replacing coal with natural gas would be better for curbing climate change, scientists say. But since it is itself a potent greenhouse gas—over a 20-year period, methane is 72 times better at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2—if enough of it escapes during the process of fracking a well and distributing natural gas, its benefits to fighting climate change dwindle. 

THE RULES ARE FOCUSED ON FIXING LEAKS

The new rules—which have yet to be formalized—will be designed to reduce methane leaks from oil and gas operations to 45 percent of 2012 levels, according to the EPA's announcement. The rules pertain to new wells only, excluding hundreds of thousands of existing oil and gas wells in the U.S. 

Environmental groups say that's a problem because these existing wells are the largest source of methane pollution. And there’s evidence that the majority of methane leaks from the oil and gas industry comes from a small percentage of so-called ‘super-emitters’. In addition, thousands of abandoned wells could be leaking 'significant' amounts of methane, including many wells in Pennsylvania

The EPA says it will propose new standards and guidelines for oil and gas producers to use to reduce methane emissions, including more use of infrared cameras to look for and catch leaks all throughout the oil and gas distribution system, increased reporting requirements for methane emissions, and by seeking voluntary reductions from the industry among existing wells.

METHANE EMISSIONS APPEAR TO BE GOING DOWN, ANYWAY

The oil and gas industry opposes the new rules, saying they’re unnecessary. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), an industry ally and newly minted Chairman of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, said the new rules were "designed to stifle our domestic energy industries" despite the industry's "successful voluntary steps" to reduce methane leaks on its own.

The industry points to the EPA’s own numbers, which show that, even as oil and gas production has surged, methane emissions have declined by 17 percent since 1990. This has been accomplished mainly through switches to low-emission equipment and procedures, according to the EPA, although the government's numbers on methane have been questioned by environmental groups

EXISTING WELLS AREN'T INCLUDED, BUT MAY BE IN THE FUTURE

Environmental groups like PennFuture have been cautiously optimistic about the rule—they called it a “bold and much needed step” in reducing methane. But they and others aren't happy that the rule only applies to new wells.

That may yet happen. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has put the oil and gas industry on notice that she could still seek to put clamps on existing wells and infrastructure, if the industry doesn’t prove that voluntary efforts are working to meet EPA’s goals.