As world leaders convene in Paris to chart a global response to climate change, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, is continuing its work here at home to implement the nuts and bolts of the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan.
Today, the EPA closed the public comment period on the first-ever federal standards for methane pollution from the oil and gas sector. This sector is the country’s largest industrial source of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that is even more potent than carbon dioxide. The EPA proposal would require oil companies to capture methane pollution at new wells, set emissions standards for new oil and gas equipment, and detect and repair methane leaks.
Through the EPA comment period and elsewhere, the American public has expressed strong support for this proposal, which offers a good start toward mitigating the climate impact of methane pollution from the U.S. oil and gas industry. But it must be the first step, not the last, in securing methane pollution reductions from the industry if the United States is to meet its climate goals.
The administration’s actions to cut methane are a valuable start
In the run-up to the Paris climate negotiations, the Obama administration submitted its plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions—called the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, or INDC—to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The submission formalized the United States’ commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
The INDC includes a list of policy actions that the Obama administration has taken or plans to take to meet this goal, including the Clean Power Plan to cut carbon pollution from the power sector and several initiatives to make cars and trucks more efficient. The INDC also discusses plans to address methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. The administration has set a separate goal of reducing methane pollution from this sector by 40 percent to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025.
The EPA estimates that the proposed methane standards, which apply only to new and modified sources in the oil and gas sector, would avert the leakage of up to 400,000 short tons of methane in 2025. This is the carbon equivalent of preventing the combustion of more than 1 billion gallons of gasoline or shutting down two coal-fired power plants.
Although these are important reductions, they represent just 4 percent to 5 percent of all 2013 methane emissions from petroleum and natural gas systems. Ultimately, it will be difficult for the United States to meet its climate goals without setting methane limits for existing sources—not just new sources—in the oil and gas sector. By 2018, nearly 90 percent of the oil and gas sector’s methane emissions will come from sources that were already in operation by 2011.
By proposing methane limits for new sources under Section 111(b) of the Clean Air Act, the EPA actually took the first step toward developing standards to control methane pollution from existing sources. The proposal for new sources triggers Section 111(d) of the statute, which now requires the EPA to issue regulations for states to submit plans for reducing methane from wells, equipment, and facilities that are already in operation. To date, however, the EPA has not yet announced a plan to start a rulemaking for existing sources.
Voluntary measures to limit methane from existing sources are not enough
In July 2015, the EPA proposed a voluntary industry program, the Natural Gas STAR Methane Challenge Program, to reduce methane pollution from existing oil and gas operations. According to the agency, this voluntary initiative will “provide a new mechanism through which companies could make and track ambitious commitments to reduce methane emissions.”
Voluntary programs can provide a stepping stone to regulatory action. At an October 2015 event at the Center for American Progress, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy noted that voluntary industry initiatives are “wonderful learning experiences” that create partnerships with states and industry stakeholders. She added, “When we learn enough, and we know that we should move toward a regulatory arena, we take that step.” She also said that the experience gained from these voluntary programs “gives you the impetus and the data and the learning you need to do what the Clean Air Act and other statutes require.”
Ultimately, however, voluntary industry initiatives are not an effective substitute for legally enforceable pollution standards established under the Clean Air Act. Not all oil and gas producers will participate in the new voluntary initiative. Only 25 oil and gas producers—representing less than 1 percent of all producers in the United States—currently participate in the EPA’s existing Natural Gas STAR Program, upon which the new program is based. Similarly, several studies have shown that many oil and gas companies are not making the effort to find and repair leaks and replace faulty equipment, even though the technology is cost effective and already readily available. To achieve significant methane pollution reductions, all oil and gas companies—not just the minority that chooses to invest in leak detection or participate in the voluntary EPA program—need to implement best practices industrywide.
The public supports EPA action on methane
A majority of Americans support policies to cut carbon pollution and want a strong international agreement to limit climate change. This support extends to the EPA’s work to control methane pollution.
In September 2015, the EPA held three public hearings on the methane proposal in Dallas, Denver, and Pittsburgh—cities at the center of the oil and gas production boom. The turnout was overwhelmingly supportive of reducing methane pollution. More than 300 people spoke in support of the rule at the hearings, and only 18 spoke in opposition. The press reported that the Denver hearing was “dominated” by participants calling for a strong rule, including elected officials representing communities with oil and gas activity and environmental groups concerned about the human health and climate impacts of air pollution from drilling.
To mark the end of the comment period for the proposed rule, a coalition of environmental and public health groups presented 700,000 public comments to the EPA in support of strong action to limit air pollution from the oil and gas industry.
This public demonstration of support is in line with polling on the issue. A September 2015 poll commissioned by the American Lung Association found that a majority—67 percent—of voters support the EPA’s efforts to require the oil and gas industry to control its methane pollution. Most voters—61 percent—expressed doubt that the industry would be able to achieve the needed methane pollution reductions voluntarily without strong, enforceable limits.
Despite this public support, the oil and gas industry and its allies in Congress are unlikely to let the EPA continue its work unchallenged. Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) already has introduced a bill to block the EPA from acting to “propose, finalize, implement, or enforce” any emission limit on methane from the oil and gas sector.
This predictable blustering should not dissuade the agency from finalizing a strong rule for new sources and commencing a new rulemaking on existing sources of pollution. With the EPA taking the lead, the Obama administration has clearly demonstrated the country’s commitment to addressing climate change. Tackling methane pollution from all sources in the oil and gas sector is the next logical step in that leadership.
Alison Cassady is Director of Domestic Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress.