The Environmental Protection Agency is looking to cut methane emissions as part of President Obama’s plan to reduce greenhouse gases to fight global warming.
The agency’s newly released five white papers “fully evaluate the range of policy mechanisms that will cost-effectively cut methane waste and emissions,” but some are saying that this could be the first step on the road to more regulations.
“We might put it another way: we would suggest that the white papers may be the first pages in the regulatory paper trail to new federal methane regulations that go beyond EPA’s April 2012 new source performance standards (NSPS) for volatile organic compounds,” according to analysts at ClearView Energy.
In 2012, the EPA finished regulations for volatile organic compounds from hydraulic fracturing wells, arguing that such rules would lead to methane reductions.
But a lawsuit from seven states and environmental groups in 2012 pushed the agency to go further in reducing methane levels. Proponents of more climate regulations say that reducing methane is crucial to curbing global warming — as methane has 34 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.
Environmentalists hailed the EPA white papers as a signal that the agency is readying itself to take steps to reduce methane emissions.
“The release of the white papers is an important step in the administration’s plan to address methane pollution,” Peter Zalzal, a senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, told E&E News.
But the oil and gas industry, as well as some lawmakers, are worried that the EPA could move to regulate methane emissions from oil and gas drilling operations, jeopardizing the country’s current energy boom.
“EPA should exercise restraint from a rush to additional regulation and allow the implementation of the existing New Source Performance Standards to achieve the anticipated emission reductions,” said Carlton Carroll, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute.
Booming natural gas production has actually helped lower U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in recent years, as utilities replace coal with gas — which has a smaller carbon dioxide footprint when burned for power. The EPA reports that greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 10 percent since 2005.
Despite lowering the country’s carbon footprint, the Obama administration is still pressing ahead with plans to curb methane emissions.
“EPA will use the white papers, and the feedback we receive, to determine how to build on the success of our voluntary programs and existing regulations to cost-effectively cut additional methane and [volatile organic compounds] emissions. EPA will determine how to best pursue additional reductions this fall,” the EPA said in a statement.
There has been a lot of debate about the extent to which oil and gas operations contribute to U.S. methane levels. The EPA said last year that the methane leakage rate for natural gas drilling is 0.88 percent, but other studies have said it’s much higher.
According to E&E News, other studies say that total U.S. methane emissions from sources like natural gas drilling and agriculture are higher than what the EPA estimates. One particular study says that methane levels are one and one-half times what the EPA reports.
The EPA white papers’ focus on hydraulic fracturing operations indicate they are likely looking to expand their current authority, argue ClearView Energy analysts. But any proposals are likely to come out after the elections this November.
“We reiterate our prior expectation for further federal methane regulation, including possible explicit regulation of wellhead methane as a greenhouse gas (GHG), but we don’t expect to see any proposals until after the November 4 Congressional mid-term elections,” analysts said.
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