President Obama’s Methane Reduction Strategy

On March 28, 2014, President Obama released his methane reduction strategy (MRS) as the next step in the administration’s efforts to fight climate change, following through on the broad based “Climate Action Plan” outlined by the president during a speech in June 2013.  While carbon dioxide remains the principal greenhouse gas of concern (EPA estimates CO2 accounts for 82 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions), methane is a major concern since its global warming potential (GWP) is 21 times greater than CO2.  The MRS addresses four sectors:  oil and gas, coal mining, landfills and agriculture.  It directs interagency action between the Departments of Interior, Energy and Agriculture as well as EPA, and contemplates voluntary measures in addition to rulemaking to reduce methane emissions.

The Department of Interior (DOI) will propose updated standards to reduce venting and flaring of methane from oil and gas production on public lands.  The DOI will also develop a program for the capture and sale of methane produced by coal mines on lands leased by the federal government.  EPA will propose updated standards to reduce methane emissions from new landfills and solicit public comment on whether to update standards for existing landfills.  EPA and the Departments of Energy and Agriculture will release a joint “biogas road map” seeking to accelerate the adoption of methane digesters which will reduce methane emissions from cattle in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the dairy sector by 25 percent by 2020.  The Department of Energy will continue to conduct research and analysis through collaboration of its National Labs with other federal agencies in efforts to develop cost-effective emission reductions.

Since methane is the primary component of natural gas (which President Obama has labeled a “transition” fuel in the quixotic quest to replace carbon sources with renewable energy sources), methane reductions in the expanding oil and gas industry will be critically important to the success of the MRS. On April 15, 2014, EPA released for external peer review five white papers focusing on technical issues relating to emissions and mitigation techniques for potentially significant sources of emissions of methane and volatile organic compounds from oil and natural gas operations.  The white papers cover compressors, emissions from completions and ongoing production of hydraulically fractured wells, leaks, liquids unloading, and pneumatic devices.  EPA will evaluate comments from the peer review process and determine whether to engage in rulemaking which the Obama administration pledged to complete by the end of 2016 (before the next President takes office) if the president decides to proceed with rulemaking.

America’s National Gas Alliance released a statement on March 28, 2014, indicating it appreciated that “the administration has initiated a collaborative process and we look forward to being part of the solution to addressing methane emissions” while also noting that the greater use of natural gas has reduced energy related emissions across the United States to 1994 levels.

Several environmental groups have reacted positively to the MRS.  The Environmental Defense Fund, which had partnered with Anadarko, Encana and Noble Energy to support the adoption of more rigorous methane control regulations for the oil and gas industry in Colorado, “applauded” the MRS in a statement released on March 28, 2014. “This announcement is the most recent development in a year where both the impacts and solutions from methane emissions have come into clearer focus, creating new momentum for action.  Methane pollution is an intense contributor to global climate change, and the White House methane strategy is a smart road map for taking on the biggest sources of emissions, including natural gas leaks from the oil and gas sector,”  said Fred Krupp, President, Environmental Defense Fund, in a statement on the EDF website.

The Sierra Club offered less enthusiastic support.  Deborah Nardone, Sierra Club’s Campaign Director of Keeping Dirty Fuels in the Ground (her title gives away the punch line) issued the following statement in response to the MRS:  “President Obama’s plan to reduce climate-disrupting methane pollution is an important step in reining in an out of control industry exempt from too many public health protections. Required methane controls for the oil and gas sector are essential. However, even with the most rigorous methane controls and monitoring in place, we will still fall short of what is needed to fight climate disruption if we do not reduce our reliance on these dirty fossil fuels.”  She went on to explain that the Sierra Club would prefer investment in renewable energy like wind and solar and commonsense solutions like energy efficiency.

Some environmental groups may disagree with President Obama’s policies which seek to reduce methane emissions rather than ban activities that otherwise are an enormous benefit to the nation’s economy and energy independence.  The oil and gas industry should continue to actively participate in the regulatory process to assure that any regulations are carefully crafted and strike the correct balance between environmental protection and the continued development of a vital domestic energy source.

Stephen Smith focuses his practice on environmental and energy-related matters including regulatory counseling and litigation, administrative law, governmental affairs and lobbying. He represents clients before federal and state courts and administrative agencies. He provides client counseling and advice on compliance, permitting and agency communications as well as business transactions.
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