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New rules aim to reduce methane leaks from gas lines and other facilities.

New rules aim to reduce methane leaks from gas lines and other facilities.

Bilfinger SE/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

New U.S. climate rules target methane leaks

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today proposed new rules that would target emissions of methane and other pollutants from new and existing natural gas and oil facilities nationwide. The goal is to reduce emissions of methane—a potent warming gas—by 40% to 45% by 2025.

Backers say the rules are needed to address an important cause of climate change, and will prompt drillers to stop letting valuable natural gas escape into the atmosphere. But critics in industry argue the rules aren’t needed, because companies are already acting voluntarily.

Natural gas offers peril and promise in terms of its environmental effects. It creates less carbon per unit of energy produced than coal and has fewer short-term health impacts from associated pollutants. But the main component of natural gas, methane, is 80 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide when measured over a 20-year time period. So preventing methane leaks from gas fields and pipelines—as well as petroleum wells that produce gas as a byproduct—is considered crucial to combating global warming. Recent studies have shown that cities are a significant source of methane emissions, as are gas drilling and transmission facilities. And a new study released today in Environmental Science & Technology concludes that methane emissions from the collection and gathering facilities that bring natural gas to industrial plants are equivalent to the carbon dioxide produced by 37 coal plants over 2 decades.

The new rules target such industrial sources, requiring emissions to be captured from gas and oil wells, and for leaks to be found and fixed. EPA says the rules, which augment existing rules on methane pollution in some states, will reduce emissions by between 340,000 and 400,000 short tons annually by 2025.

In a statement today, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy called the new rules “cost-effective,” and some case studies have shown that firms can save money by stopping up their leaks. Jonah Energy, based in Wyoming, has utilized optical gas imaging to identify leaks at its facilities since 2010. That approach has saved the company more than $5 million, according to FLIR Systems in Arlington, Virginia, the firm that provides the imaging equipment. “That more than pays for the cost of the imaging and the labor to fix the leaks,” says FLIR salesman Brent Lammert, who said that Jonah had authorized his firm to release those figures. “This program is now profitable.”

Critics of the new rules, however, say such figures suggest the new rules are unnecessary, because companies are already incentivized to plug methane leaks. They point to EPA statistics which show a 25% decline in methane emissions from gas production since 1990, a period in which production increased by 35%. “Implementing new regulations on methane emissions fails to recognize the existing strong economic incentive to capture and utilize methane,” the Natural Gas Supply Association, a Washington, D.C.–based trade group, said in a statement. “Producers have already made deep cuts in methane emissions through voluntary measures and best practices. Well-functioning natural gas markets can help continue that trend going forward.”

Prominent Republican lawmakers today signaled their opposition to the measures. EPA’s move “is not only unnecessary, but another example of the [Obama] administration’s punitive expansion of their war on fossil fuels,” said U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe (R–OK), chair of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, in a statement.

EPA says it will be taking public comment on the new rules for 60 days after their formal publication in the Federal Register. It gave no timetable for issuing the final rules.