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Obama Proposal Targets Methane Emissions

The federal EPA on Tuesday proposed another set of rules aimed at battling climate change. These would slash oil and gas sector emissions of methane, which often leaks from well pads, compressor stations, processing plants and other equipment used in production.

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Texas Republicans have a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposal to decry.

The federal agency on Tuesday proposed another set of rules aimed at battling climate change. These would slash emissions of methane, which often leaks from well pads, compressor stations, processing plants and other equipment used in oil and gas production.

The proposal has major implications for Texas, the nation’s oil and gas king. And it comes just two weeks after the Obama administration finalized its Clean Power Plan directing states to limit the carbon that spews from power plants in the coming decades — landmark regulations that have rankled Texas’ Republican leadership.

“The EPA continues to resort to unnecessary, burdensome regulation on business instead of allowing the free market to find efficiencies in operations,” Christi Craddick, a Republican on the Railroad Commission — the state's curiously named oil and gas regulator — said in a statement to The Texas Tribune.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who has blasted the power plant regulations, did not respond to requests for comment.

The proposal is part of the president’s broader plan to cut methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent of 2012 levels by 2025. 

Among other provisions, the proposed regulations would require the industry to limit releases of methane and volatile organic compounds at new hydraulically fractured and refractured oil wells. They would also slash leaks “downstream” from production sites, including equipment that compresses and transports natural gas. The proposal would also force operators to capture methane that's otherwise burned off at existing wells in areas that have run afoul of federal limits of ozone.

“Methane clearly is an air pollutant that endangers the public health and welfare,” Janet McCabe, who heads the agency’s Office of Air and Radiation, said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters.

Taken together, the proposed rules could cut methane emissions by up to 30 percent in the coming decade, McCabe said. Other measures, including some that are voluntary, would help the administration reach its broader goal in the coming years. She did not provide details. 

So far, most U.S. efforts to fight climate change have focused on carbon dioxide, which accounts for the vast majority of greenhouse gases emitted in the country. But methane, the primary component of natural gas, is much better at trapping heat. One pound of methane has more than 20 times the impact on global warming than one pound of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, scientists estimate.

In this video, the Environmental Defense Fund used an infrared camera to document methane leaks from gathering facilities in North Texas' Barnett Shale and the EagleFord Shale in South Texas.

With that in mind, environmental groups cheered the proposal.

“This is critical step toward protecting our climate and public health,” Fred Frupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said Tuesday in a statement. “EPA is taking on a pollutant responsible for 25 percent of the warming we are experiencing today.”

The petroleum industry pushed back, calling the rules costly and suggesting that companies already do plenty to curb methane releases. Operators say they have reason to take action on their own because leaks leave them with less natural gas to sell.

“The administration is proposing a costly and complicated regulatory program for few environmental benefits,” Barry Russell, president and CEO of the Independent Petroleum Association of America said in a statement. “The unnecessary costs and added uncertainty resulting from the administration’s proposals could inflict more pain on the men and women who work in the oil and gas industry.”

Just as Texas leads the country in overall greenhouse gas emissions, it’s also a particularly large source for this potent warming gas. That’s in part because two major methane-emitting activities — agriculture and oil and gas drilling — are huge here. The state pumps about a third of the country's oil and a quarter of its natural gas.

Oil and gas industry representatives have pointed to EPA data showing total greenhouse gas emissions in the country have dropped amid a drilling surge to suggest that fracking yields climate benefits — as cleaner burning natural gas replaces coal-fired power.

But measuring nation-wide methane emissions isn’t easy. Several recent peer-reviewed studies suggest that the federal government is vastly underestimating methane emissions, particularly in heavily drilled parts of the country.

In July, a series of studies centered on North Texas, for instance, found that the gas-rich Barnett Shale was leaking 50 percent more of the gas than previously thought. Human error and faulty equipment accounted for most of the emissions, the studies found, with most coming from a small percentage of sites. 

Opponents of the rules say emissions still appear to be falling over time, claiming that Obama is unfairly targeting an industry that’s only responsible for a portion of the methane pollution. The agriculture sector — through cow farts and burps, for instance — emits lots of methane too. The EPA has adopted a voluntary program aimed to address that problem.

The federal agency says the regulations would prevent up to 400,000 tons of methane and 2,500 tons of hazardous air pollutants from wafting into the air by 2025.

Complying will cost industry up to $330 million during that period, the agency says, but the regulations will yield up to $550 million in climate benefits. 

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