Biden unveils new rules to curb methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from oil and gas operations

More than 100 countries have signed the Global Methane Pledge, which requires a 30 percent cut in methane emissions by 2030, one of the Biden administration’s priorities for the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. The pledge’s signatories now represent nearly half of human-caused methane emissions.

On Tuesday, the Biden administration also unveiled a sweeping set of domestic policies to cut emissions of methane from oil and gas operations across the United States. These proposals were made at the U.N. climate summit , and are one of President Obama’s most important efforts to fight climate change.

Proposed rules from the Environmental Protection Agency would establish standards for old wells, impose more frequent and stringent leak monitoring, and require the capture of natural gas that is found alongside oil and is often released into the atmosphere. These are the first steps taken by the federal government to address the methane seepage from U.S. petroleum and gas infrastructure.

President Biden told delegates in Glasgow that cutting methane emissions is essential to keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above levels in the late 1800s before widespread industrialization.

“One of the most important things we can do in this decisive decade — to keep 1.5 degrees in reach — is reduce our methane emissions as quickly as possible,” Biden said.

He said he hoped the world would surpass the pledges made. “Together we’re committed to collectively reduce our methane by 30 percent by 2030,” Biden said. “And I think we could probably go beyond that.”

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is the world’s second-largest contributor to climate change among greenhouse gases. Although it dissipates more quickly than carbon dioxide, it is 80 times as powerful during the first 20 years after it is released into the atmosphere.

Tackling methane is high on the agenda at the U.N. negotiations. United States and European Union are pressing other countries to sign the Global Methane Pledge in order to reduce their emissions. E.U. officials estimate that rapid reductions in methane could trim 0.3 degrees Celsius from overall global temperature rise by 2030.

Climate scientists say the world desperately needs drastic cuts in methane emissions to prevent catastrophic warming. Brazil on Monday said it had signed the methane pledge, and the White House said other top emitters to join included Indonesia, Pakistan, Argentina, Mexico, Nigeria, Iraq, Vietnam and Canada.

But some of the largest methane emitters still haven’t signed the pledge, including Russia and China.

“You’re not going to have everybody join,” said Steve Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “The fact that there’s now a large proportion of the global community signing on, that’s the real key.”

“The pledge to cut methane is the single biggest and fastest bite out of today’s warming,” Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, said in a statement.

In the Biden administration’s push to take on methane on the domestic front, the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration was expected to finalize a rule Tuesday extending federal pipeline safety standards to more than 400,000 miles of unregulated onshore gathering lines.

Previous efforts by the Obama administration to curb methane mostly focused on newer drilling sites and operations on federal lands. Although the oil industry was opposed to federal methane regulations, many large companies are now accepting them.

Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president for policy, economics and regulatory affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, said the industry supports “a cost-effective rule” and has been working with Biden officials since the presidential transition to help craft the EPA requirements. Tuesday’s statement by the lobbying group stated that they were reviewing the EPA proposal.

President Biden announced new rules to limit methane emissions from oil and gas production on Nov. 2 at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. (The Washington Post)

The EPA announcement Tuesday reflects the Biden administration’s strategy to achieve near-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions while convincing other nations that America can deliver on its ambitious climate goals.

“We need to lean in and set a very aggressive standard so that the industry understands what the rules of engagement are and what the expectations are,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in an interview last month.

“Methane is such a potent pollutant. He said that the government needs to understand the industry’s contribution, monitor it more efficiently and get deep methane emissions reductions in order for the president to achieve his agenda.

The EPA is set to require most oil and gas operators to use special cameras or other instruments four times a year to spot and plug leaks of the invisible gas from compressor stations, as well as at sites the agency suspects are leaking more than three tons of methane annually. The North Slope area of Alaska will have a stricter monitoring regime and additional requirements in order to accommodate extreme weather.

The agency will also require new and existing pneumatic controllers to have zero emissions. These devices are used at oil and gas sites to regulate valves. They also contribute a lot of methane. One industry executive stated that sales of zero emission controllers are slow because the oilfield operators prefer to delay replacing the damaged device in order to lower costs.

The EPA is also set to restrict the venting of natural gas found in oil wells, known as associated gas, requiring operators to route the gas to a pipeline when possible.

For the first time, older oil and gas wells, which are most prone to leaks, will have to curb methane. The new proposal will require states to develop their own methane rules for existing wells that are in line with federal guidelines, while the EPA will regulate all new wells.

“There is a general sense that at least when it comes to the oil and gas sector, a lot of the technologies and tools are available, so it is possible to cost-effectively reduce methane,” said Jeffrey Berman, director of energy transition analysis at the Rapidan Energy Group. “You can cost-effectively do a lot of the things that are required.”

This equipment includes better monitoring technology, zero-emission controllers, flares and valves.

Separately, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s new rule will require oil and gas companies to report problems with pipelines carrying gas from wells to a centralized site.

When one of these pipes ruptures, it releases more than 1,000 metric tons of methane on average and can be deadly. The explosion in 2018 of a corroded 10-inch gas gathering line in Midland, Tex., killed a 3-year-old girl and badly burned members of her family.

“After years in development, these new regulations represent a major step to enhance and modernize pipeline safety and environmental standards,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “This rule will improve safety, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and result in more jobs for pipeline workers that are needed to help upgrade the safety and operations of these lines.”

The EPA proposal alone is estimated to reduce methane emissions by about 41 million tons through 2035 — an amount equal to taking more than 200 million passenger cars off the roads for a year. It expects to publish the final rule before the end of the year.

Republicans said the new EPA rule is ill-timed, as much of the world faces an energy crunch heading into winter. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), said that “this move by the Biden Administration is yet another attack against U.S. Energy.”

Plugging methane leaks is not just good for the health of Earth’s climate system. The EPA proposal would also reduce the amount of harmful and smog-forming chemicals that accumulate around oil drilling locations, making it safer and more comfortable to inhale. The EPA proposal would prevent the emission of 480,000 tons of toxic air pollutants through 2035.

For Sue Franklin, the rotten-egg stench of sulfur dioxide from wells less than a mile from her Permian Basin home in West Texas made falling asleep difficult. She said that smelling them for hours would lead to severe headaches.

Two years ago, she and her husband, Jim, had had enough and moved about 28 miles away from the property on which they had intended to retire. She said that the effects of her ageing continue to affect her.

“I am getting older, so things were going to start going downhill for me anyway,” the 70-year-old said in a phone interview. “But I think that they rushed it along for me a little bit.”

Nearly 1,500 miles away in western Pennsylvania, Lois Bower-Bjornson stopped opening the windows in her home in Washington County after her teenage son, Gunnar, began getting severe nosebleeds. The family had high levels of industrial chemicals found in their urine. Urine tests confirmed this.

Bower-Bjornson said she wants federal rules on leaks because she thinks the state government has failed to step up: No county in Pennsylvania has more drilling sites than hers.

“We’re an energy-producing state,” she said. It would be amazing if there was a magical wand that could make this all disappear. But realistically, we know that’s not happening.”

Only a few states, including Colorado and New Mexico, have tried to regulate emissions from the oil and gas sector on their own. The EPA put forward a regulation aimed at stopping leaks from new oil and gas equipment less than a year before President Barack Obama left office, but the Trump administration rolled it back.

Robert Kleinberg, a research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said past federal rules allowed industry to comply too easily, without restricting major sources of methane, such as unlit flares at oil and gas wells. While gas flaring is wasteful it helps to eliminate methane from the atmosphere before it escapes.

“Things have changed a lot even in the 10 years since these rules were first written,” he said. “Yet EPA has just not kept up.”

The EPA’s proposal does not address some significant sources of methane emissions in the oil and gas sector, including abandoned wells and malfunctions in gas flaring. Officials stated that the agency will issue a second proposal in order to resolve these issues next year.

Lauren Pagel, policy director at Earthworks, an environmental group that travels the country detecting leaks with infrared cameras, said Biden’s proposals are “an important step forward” but not sufficient.

“Our certified thermographers consistently uncover unlit flares that are venting massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere,” she said. “Any common-sense pollution standards would cover venting from all sources, including flares.”

The fee would start at $900 per ton in 2023 and increase to $1,500 in 2025. Oil and gas firms could also tap $775 million in grants, loans and other spending from the EPA to help them plug leaks.

But much of the oil industry and some moderate Democrats oppose that plan. Representative for West Virginia’s gas-producing West Virginia (Sen. Joe Manchin III, D) declined Monday to comment on the proposal to charge methane fees.

“Really, it’s just a tax on natural gas, which is counterproductive,” said Macchiarola, the oil and gas lobbyist.

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