U.S. EPA said yesterday it will for the first time regulate existing sources of methane from the oil and gas industry.

The announcement came as part of a new joint U.S.-Canada pact to cut domestic emissions of the potent greenhouse gas (Greenwire, March 10). Both countries agreed to reduce emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025.

Scientists and environmentalists praised the decision as an important step toward reducing U.S. emissions and meeting America’s pledge toward the global climate accord struck last year in Paris.

"Today’s announcement is a strong signal that these two neighbors are committed to following through on climate commitments," said Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "As neighboring countries that trade significantly in oil and gas, it’s important that they bring the industry along together. This is an opportunity to harmonize how methane is addressed in the sector."

Industry officials and many Republicans, meanwhile, blasted the move. Sandra Snyder, counsel at Bracewell LLP, said new EPA regulations would likely increase costs for the industry.

"I would emphasize that even if industry is already taking steps to capture and sell more product, the manpower to carry out the regulatory burdens is not insignificant," she said.

"When companies own tens of thousands of wells, documentation and record-keeping becomes a real issue," she said. "A system is required to manage all of that information, and additional training is required to ensure that record keeping is conducted properly."

EPA is expected to begin work on the new regulations "immediately," according to a joint statement from the U.S. and Canadian governments.

Rule ‘will spill into the next administration’

Starting next month, EPA will begin a formal information-gathering process that the agency is aiming to complete by later this year. Then the agency will begin creating a proposal for regulating existing methane sources in the oil and gas industry.

Meanwhile, Environment and Climate Change Canada will work to publish an initial phase of methane emissions regulations by the beginning of next year.

There is no public timeline yet for whether or not EPA regulations on existing sources could be completed before President Obama leaves office.

"It’s clear this will spill into the next administration," said Cleetus. "I think the EPA will continue to work on regulations, but there’s no question we need an administration in place that understands the importance of climate action.

"We’ve seen that the Obama administration’s commitment has been able to move forward regulations that have been years in the making, like the Clean Power Plan," she said.

Others say it’s possible that pressure from the administration could lead to final proposed regulations by the end of this year.

"Our policy is they should complete the information-gathering as soon as possible," said Conrad Schneider, advocacy director at the Clean Air Task Force. "We want the EPA to ask for information that is readily available."

That could speed up the process and help to get regulations completed during this administration and at the same time create as tight a proposal as possible.

"There are many thousands of well pads across the nation that are currently unregulated, despite their harmful emissions; evidence shows that operators of these wells can easily bring down emissions with proven approaches, as has been shown in Colorado and Wyoming already," Schneider said.

"A regulation covering existing sources should go further, however, and regulate emission points from the well pad, the gathering pipeline system, midstream processing and the transmission pipeline infrastructure," he said.

Methane a powerful slice of U.S. greenhouse gases

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2014, the number of producing natural gas wells alone was over 1 million in a total of 32 states and the Gulf of Mexico.

Regardless of how quickly EPA is able to come up with a final proposal, supporters of more regulation on the oil and gas sector agreed that the agency’s commitment to address existing sources of methane is an important step for protecting the environment.

"Methane is an incredible problem and something that really needs to be addressed to reach the Paris target," said Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University.

While CO2 makes up a much larger percentage of overall greenhouse gases, methane’s heat-trapping properties make it a significant environmental threat, Howarth said.

If methane’s environmental impact is evaluated over a 20-year time scale, the gas has more than 80 times the ability to trap heat of carbon dioxide. Even when considered over 100 years, it is still has about 25 times the heat-trapping capacity of CO2.

According to EPA, methane constitutes about 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second most common greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide. The oil and gas industry by itself is the largest man-made source of the gas, pumping 29 percent of total U.S. methane emissions into the atmosphere.

Howarth noted that the CO2 pumped into the atmosphere will remain there for hundreds of years. That means even if countries drastically cut CO2 emissions, people would still experience climate change because of the accumulated emissions already in the atmosphere.

"Methane, on the other hand, is just in the atmosphere for about 12 years. It’s a much shorter time span, but if we respond to methane now, we actually slow global warming now," Howarth said.

What’s next, ‘regulating cows’?

That is important for meeting the Paris accord’s target to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The planet may reach that temperature increase in a little over a decade.

"If we reduce global human-caused methane by a third, we buy several decades of time," he said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also pointed to the impact of methane on global temperatures as an important reason to begin regulations that she referred to as "long overdue."

"I think most people don’t know that the atmosphere is finite. It’s like a shell around Earth, so that all this carbon and methane doesn’t disappear. It remains in the atmosphere. So you keep adding it up, and at some point, you’ve got a toxic level that has major effect," she said.

The oil and gas industry argue that creating regulations on both new and modified sources of methane and existing sources will put an undue burden on producers and slow the U.S. energy boom.

"Industry-led efforts are a proven way to reduce methane," Kyle Isakower, vice president of regulatory and economic policy at the American Petroleum Institute, told reporters in a press call.

He cited EPA’s greenhouse gas inventory that found methane emissions from "hydraulically fractured natural gas well completions and work overs" had gone down by 79 percent and methane from field production of natural gas was down 38 percent since 2005.

"This is a direct result of industry innovation. And this is all while natural gas production has soared to record highs," he said.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) questioned why the Obama administration is targeting oil and gas.

"What about cows? They produce methane, too, so are they going to regulate cows?" he asked.

Reporters Pola Lem and Jean Chemnick contributed.

E&ETV’s The Cutting Edge: ClimateWire’s Chemnick talks next steps on U.S.-Canada methane agreement

How will this week’s climate announcement between the United States and Canada affect the global momentum on cutting greenhouse gas emissions? On today’s The Cutting Edge,ClimateWire reporter Jean Chemnick discusses the next steps for the United States as U.S. EPA runs up against a tight timeline to move regulations to limit methane emissions from existing oil and gas operations. Today’s The Cutting Edge will air on E&ETV at 12:30 p.m. EST.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500