Get Ready For Obama EPA’s Push To Regulate Methane Emissions

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Environmentalists are pushing the Obama administration to crack down on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, building on the White House’s recent limits on carbon dioxide emissions.

Lawmakers and natural gas supporters worry that outcries from environmentalists, led by the influential Natural Resources Defense Council, could led to a regulatory crackdown on methane, a potent greenhouse gas, this fall. A worrisome prospect for businesses and states benefiting from booming natural gas production.

“The Obama Administration, in conjunction with the NRDC, is carrying out an all-out assault on America’s fossil fuel resources that is unnecessarily inflating the cost of energy,” Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“The President’s Climate Action Plan was quick to go after coal, and the NRDC is now refocusing the EPA’s sights to take out natural gas by pushing harsh methane emissions mandates,” Inhofe added.

Environmentalists have expressed concerns that Environmental Protection Agency rules limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants will force many utilities to replace coal plants with natural gas plants, which means more gas drilling and possibly more methane emissions.

That’s why David Doniger, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, put forward a plan to restrict methane emissions from natural gas operations while also limiting carbon dioxide from power plants. Doniger and green groups the EPA and Interior Department to craft regulations aimed at cutting methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

“We know this methane leakage can be cut by half or more with proven, cheap technology,” Doniger wrote in a Thursday blog post. “But EPA’s current standards don’t apply to fracked oil wells that also contain gas — gas that the drillers often just waste by venting or flaring it away.”

Doniger’s call to crackdown on methane from gas operations is one the natural gas industry and lawmakers would be remiss to ignore. A July New York Times report detailed how Doniger and two other NRDC colleagues basically wrote the blueprint for the EPA’s carbon dioxide limits for existing power plants.

According to the Times, Doniger “worked with a team of experts to write a 110-page proposal… that was aimed at slashing planet-warming carbon pollution from the nation’s coal-fired power plants. … Indisputable, however, is that the Natural Resources Defense Council was far ahead of the E.P.A. in drafting the architecture of the proposed regulation,” the Times added.

The New York Times article has even sparked a congressional investigation into NRDC’s ties with EPA officials to see if any sort of collusion is happening.

EPA officials, however, have been ambiguous on whether or not they will take more regulatory actions against methane or expand voluntary programs to cut the greenhouse gas.

“It is clear from the work EPA has done so far on methane emissions that the agency does not have an accurate understanding of the oil and natural gas industry,” Inhofe said. “What EPA needs to do is figure out how it can streamline regulations across the government to ensure methane emissions are voluntarily reduced as quickly as possible.”

Why methane?

Natural gas has often been floated by environmentalists and some industry-types as a solution to global warming. Even Obama administration officials have said gas was a “bridge fuel” to a green energy economy because it emits less carbon dioxide than coal when burned for power.

Despite the hype, President Obama promised to crackdown on methane last March, including emissions from natural gas and agriculture operations. The White House and their eco-allies fear that expanding use of natural gas, in particular, will exacerbate global warming as methane is more than 80 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Currently the EPA has voluntary programs for reducing methane emissions from fracked gas wells — regulations which don’t extend to fracked oil wells containing gas, according to Doniger.

“And those standards don’t stop the leakage of methane and other pollutants as gas is gathered from the drill pad, moved to processing plants, and transmitted through hundreds of miles of pipelines to power plants and cities,” writes Doniger.

But EPA methane worries come as their own reports show emissions falling in recent years despite massively increasing oil and natural gas production. Methane emissions have fallen nearly 17 percent since 1990, according to agency data.

Studies have also found that methane emissions from natural gas are much lower than the EPA estimates. A University of Texas study from last year — sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund and the oil and natural gas industry — put fugitive methane emissions at 0.42 percent of total production.

“There have been a few — and, in many cases, deeply flawed – studies suggesting EPA is underestimating emissions,” Steve Everley with Energy In Depth, an industry-backed project, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The best science tells us that methane ‘leaks’ are not large enough to erode the environmental benefits of natural gas.”

“This represents nothing less than a major escalation of the war on energy producers and consumers in the United States, by the very group we now know wrote major parts of the Obama Administration’s ‘climate action plan,'” Dan Kish of the Institute for Energy Research told TheDCNF. “Their target now is the only growing sector of the economy — the oil and gas industry, and their answer for running our country is more Solyndras.”

“Weakening America’s energy security at home will only strengthen America’s growing threats from abroad,” Kish added.

In the natural gas industry’s view, methane emissions are a fixable problem which the companies have already been addressing as domestic energy production booms.

“The industry has led efforts to reduce emissions of methane by developing new technologies and equipment, and these efforts are paying off,” a spokesman with the American Petroleum Institute told TheDCNF. “Recent studies show methane emissions are a fraction of estimates from just a few years ago.”

“The industry will continue to make substantial progress to reduce emissions voluntarily and in compliance with EPA’s recent emissions standards. Methane is natural gas, so capturing more of it helps companies deliver more energy to consumers,” the spokesman added. “This creates a built-in incentive to continue reducing emissions.”

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