Obama seeks tighter rules on methane emissions from oil, gas drillers

In this March 25, 2014, file photo, a worker adjusts hoses during a hydraulic fracturing operation at a gas well, near Mead, Colo.
In this March 25, 2014, file photo, a worker adjusts hoses during a hydraulic fracturing operation at a gas well, near Mead, Colo.
Photo by AP
| Thursday, March 10, 2016, 9:12 a.m.

President Obama on Thursday promised a further crackdown on methane emissions from oil and gas operations — a plan that could face an uncertain future if a Republican wins the White House this fall.

The pledge to limit leaks from existing wells, pipes, storage and equipment addresses complaints from environmentalists about rules proposed last year targeting only new sources, but intensifies claims of regulatory overreach from the industry and political opponents.

The Environmental Protection Agency did not lay out details or a time line for the proposal, which Obama announced in a joint statement on climate initiatives with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The agency next month will ask the industry to provide information on wells and other sources, on technology available for detecting and plugging leaks, and on potential costs.

“While we don't have a dollar figure, we can only assume the economic impact … is going to be massive,” said Kyle Isakower, a vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, who accused the administration of “catering to environmental extremists at the expense of American consumers.”

Obama faces a game clock on cementing his climate protection legacy during his last year if a Republican wins the White House. The lack of a clear time line from EPA highlights the need for urgency in passing state rules covering existing sources, which Gov. Tom Wolf proposed in January, environmentalists said.

“While it's clear that Pennsylvania's early action on methane will allow its rules to shape the ultimate federal plan, residents of the second-largest natural gas-producing state in the nation cannot afford to wait,” said Larry Schweiger, president of the advocacy group PennFuture.

Republican presidential hopefuls including Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have echoed industry claims that Obama's push to cut carbon and methane emissions from power plants and other energy sectors has jeopardized economic growth, and promised to reverse some of Obama's policies.

The industry is reducing emissions on its own, despite growing production and low prices, leaders say.

“We need common sense policies from both Washington and Harrisburg, not solutions in search of problems that provide no meaningful environmental benefits and only hamper job growth during this period of historic ongoing market challenges,” said David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

Estimates show the energy industry has reduced emissions, but research from environmental groups and schools including Carnegie Mellon University provide new data showing a need for more oversight, said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

“It has become clear it is time for EPA to take additional actions to regulate existing sources within the oil and gas sector,” she told reporters on an early morning conference call.

Methane is a more potent contributor to warming in the atmosphere than the carbon dioxide coming from power plants that the EPA is seeking to reduce through separate regulations.

Previously announced rules that McCarthy said should be finalized in the coming months seek to limit methane releases by extending certain permitting requirements to pipelines and storage equipment while requiring more efforts by companies to detect and fix leaks.

But they apply only to new and modified sources, which critics said would ignore existing wells and equipment responsible for the majority of emissions.

The gap prompted officials in Pennsylvania to begin writing a new regulation covering existing shale wells, a set of recommendations covering pipelines, and two permits for new wells and compressor stations. The permits would require better equipment and record-keeping and quarterly inspections. Compressor stations will have to use newer diesel engines that reduce certain air pollution emissions.

“Pennsylvania will continue with our rule-making, and monitor developments from the EPA,” said Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Neil Shader.

State officials acknowledged that some companies are taking steps to reduce methane leaks. Shale drilling has introduced newer, less-leak-prone equipment during the past decade, feeding a cut in emissions, industry leaders say.

“Methane is the primary component of natural gas,” API's Isakower said. “So producers want to capture and sell more of it, rather than letting it escape into the atmosphere.”

Obama and Trudeau pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, work on a carbon credit-trading scheme and protect the Arctic environment. Canada said it would propose rules aimed at its oil and gas sector by 2017.

“Air pollution knows no borders,” said Joseph Otis Minott, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council. “These rules are crucial for ensuring that the health of Pennsylvania residents is fully protected.”

Obama and Trudeau said they would work on fixing a trade agreement involving softwood lumber, strengthen collaboration on cybersecurity and law enforcement, and look for ways to cooperate on writing business regulations.

David Conti is the assistant business editor at the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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