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Obama to issue rules cutting methane leaks from landfills, mines; to study oil, gas leaks

Mark Drajem and Jim Efstathiou Jr.
(c) 2014, Bloomberg News


WASHINGTON — The Obama administration says it will propose rules to cut methane emissions at landfills and coal mines as well as begin a study that may result in regulations to reduce leaks from oil and gas production.

A 15-page plan released Friday outlines steps to help utilities curb leaks in transport and distribution of natural gas. The plan calls for the Environmental Protection Agency to study methane emissions in from oil and gas production to determine whether rules are needed. If it decides to regulate, the standards would take effect in 2016.

"The EPA wants to gather addition information," Dan Utech, special assistant to President Barack Obama for energy and climate change, said on a conference call with reporters. The rules on landfills and coal mines will be the first regulations directly targeting methane, Utech said.

Environmental groups are pushing the EPA to issue curbs on methane for oil wells and require further cuts in methane emissions from gas wells. The groups say tougher standards are needed to reduce emissions after research showed leaks of methane are greater than previously estimated.

"The most important work of turning this strategy into action lies ahead," Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement. "This strategy has the potential to deliver the federal regulatory oversight that is needed to complement state efforts."

An industry trade group said drillers have already reduced emissions with new technologies and equipment.

"Additional regulations are not necessary and could have a chilling effect on the American energy renaissance," Howard Feldman, director of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement. "Recent studies show emissions are far lower than EPA projected just a few years ago."

In June, Obama outlined policies to lower U.S. pollution blamed for global warming, including limits on emissions from new and existing coal-fired power plants.

Obama's goal is to cut emissions blamed for climate change by 17 percent below 2005 levels. With a politically divided Congress that is unlikely to adopt climate measures, the administration is focusing on actions that can meet the target without legislative action.

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is 21 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, according to the EPA. When it's burned to produce electricity, natural gas emits about half the carbon dioxide, the main gas linked to global warming, as coal. If too much methane escapes during production and transport, that environmental benefit is diminished or lost.

Environmental groups and the administration have said many of the mandates to reduce leaks are cost effective for companies, because the methane that is captured is a product that can be sold.

In 2012, the EPA issued rules forcing gas drillers to cut the pollutants released when a well is first put into production. Those rules, which didn't target methane, would reduce those emissions, it said.

Separately, the Interior Department will issue rules to curb methane venting or flaring from wells on public lands later this year, according to the plan. The department will also propose a rule to capture waste mine methane on federal lands.

In addition, the EPA this year will propose standards to reduce methane emissions from new landfills and will study new rules for existing dumps. Utech said they are the first rules to target the potent greenhouse gas.

"Today's announcement is a big step in the right direction," said David Doniger, head of climate issue at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "But more needs to be done."

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