WASHINGTON -- The Biden administration on Tuesday launched a wide-ranging plan to reduce methane emissions, targeting a potent greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to global warming and packs a stronger short-term punch than even carbon dioxide.
The centerpiece of U.S. actions is a long-awaited rule by the Environmental Protection Agency to tighten methane regulations for the oil and gas sector, as laid out in one of Biden's first executive orders.
The proposed rule would for the first time target reductions from existing oil and gas wells nationwide, rather than focus only on new wells as previous regulations have done.
"One of the most important things we can do in this decisive decade — to keep 1.5 degrees in reach — is reduce our methane emissions as quickly as possible,'' Biden said, referring to a global pledge to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above levels in the late 19th century.
Methane is “one of the most potent greenhouse gases there is,'' Biden said, adding that the new U.S. rules and the global pledge are "going to make a huge difference,'' not only in fighting climate change, but to improve health and reduce asthma and other respiratory problems.
Reducing methane leaks, “capturing methane to turn it into new revenue streams,” will save companies money and create "good-paying union jobs for our workers,'' Biden said.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the new rule, established under the Clean Air Act, would lead to significant reductions in methane emissions and other pollutants and would be stricter than an Obama-era standard set in 2016. Congress reinstated the Obama standard last summer in a rare effort by majority Democrats to use the legislative branch to overturn a regulatory rollback under former President Donald Trump.
“EPA's “historic action" will “ensure robust and lasting cuts in pollution across the country,'' Regan said, adding that the new rule will protect communities near oil and natural gas sites and advance U.S. climate goals under the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Once finalized, the proposed requirements would reduce by approximately 75% methane emissions from U.S. drilling operations and equipment, the White House said.
The oil and natural gas industry is the nation’s largest industrial source of methane, a highly potent pollutant that is responsible for about one-third of current warming from human activities.
The oil and gas sector also is a leading source of other harmful air pollutants, including volatile organic compounds that contribute to ground-level ozone, or smog, and air toxins such as benzene that are emitted along with methane.
Environmental groups call methane reduction the fastest and most cost-effective action to slow the rate of global warming. Current rules for methane emissions from U.S. oil and gas wells only apply to sources that were built or modified after 2015, leaving more than 90% of the nation’s nearly 900,000 well sites unregulated. Many of those sites are smaller, low-producing wells.
Overall, the proposed requirements would reduce by approximately 75% emissions from the sources, equipment, and operations that the proposal covers. Those reductions would total 41 million cumulative tons of methane between 2023 and 2035
Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, called the new rule "an important step that offers a major victory for nine million Americans living near active oil and gas sites.'' But he said EPA and other agencies must do more to cut down on flaring and leaks from so-called “marginal wells” that have disproportionately high emissions.
The American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry’s top lobbying group, has said it supports direct regulation of methane emissions from new and existing sources but opposes efforts in Congress to impose fees on methane leaks, calling them punitive and unnecessary. The industry says leaks of methane, the main component of natural gas, have decreased even as natural gas production has gone up as a result of the ongoing fracking boom. Technological advancements in recent years have make finding and repairing natural gas leaks cheaper and easier.
“EPA has released a sweeping proposal, and we look forward to reviewing it in its entirety,'' said API senior vice president Frank Macchiarola. The group will work with EPA to help shape a final rule "that is effective, feasible and designed to encourage further innovation,'' he said.
The administration's plan includes new safety regulations by the Transportation Department to tighten requirements over methane leaks from the nation's 3 million miles of pipelines.
The Interior Department, meanwhile, is preparing to crack down on methane waste burned at drilling sites on public lands. And the Agriculture Department is working with farmers to establish so-called climate-smart standards to monitor and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon storage.
Biden has previously announced plans to step up efforts to plug leaks at old oil and gas wells and clean up abandoned coal mines. A bipartisan infrastructure bill approved by the Senate includes billions to reclaim abandoned mine land and cap orphaned wells.
The administration also is taking aim at methane emissions from landfills, with emphasis on food loss and waste that serves as a major contributor. EPA has set a voluntary goal of capturing 70% of methane emissions from U.S. landfills.