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EPA aims to slash the oil industry's climate-warming methane pollution

A flare burns off methane and other hydrocarbons as oil pumpjacks operate in the Permian Basin in Midland, Texas, Oct. 12, 2021.
David Goldman
A flare burns off methane and other hydrocarbons as oil pumpjacks operate in the Permian Basin in Midland, Texas, Oct. 12, 2021.

The oil industry has long leaked methane into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse gasses that are warming the planet. Now, new federal rules aim to dramatically reduce that pollution in the next 15 years.

The Biden administration has issued strict new regulations to reduce methane from oil and gas industry operations. The announcement from the Environmental Protection Agency comes as world leaders are in Dubai for the annual United Nations climate meeting, where controlling methane is a big focus.

Methane is the main ingredient in natural gas. It stays in the atmosphere for a shorter time than carbon dioxide – the most abundant greenhouse gas from humans. But methane is a much more potent climate-warming gas. Research shows that even small amounts of methane escaping into the atmosphere can equal the climate-warming effects of burning coal.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan, in a written statement, called the new final rule an "historic action to reduce climate pollution, protecting people and the planet." He said the regulation is part of President Biden's ambitious climate change efforts, to zero out the country's greenhouse gasses by 2050 and meet goals in the landmark Paris climate agreement.

The EPA estimates the new rule will reduce methane emissions nearly 80% below what they were projected to be, and that will "prevent an estimated 58 million tons of methane emissions from 2024 to 2038." The agency says that's the equivalent climate warming power "as all the carbon dioxide emitted by the power sector in 2021."

The EPA says over that period, the amount of methane that will be captured or leaks avoided, would be enough to heat nearly 8 million American homes for a winter.

The agency also estimates the final rule will have net financial benefits of at least $7.3 billion a year from 2024 - 2038. Included in that accounting is the cost of deploying new technologies, along with climate savings and health benefits.

Human-caused methane emissions are responsible for about 30% of global warming today, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Most of the methane emitted by humans comes from the energy sector, agriculture and landfills.

Included in the new rule is a "Super Emitter Program" that allows third parties, including environmental groups, to detect and report large methane releases from oil and gas sites. The EPA says studies show these large emitters account for almost half the methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.

There's also a requirement for the industry to phase out routine natural gas flaring at new oil wells. Often drillers will flare, or burn, gas that comes out of the ground with more valuable oil when there isn't a pipeline nearby to transport the gas to buyers.

The new rule also requires "comprehensive monitoring" for methane leaks from well sites and compressor stations. In addition to regularly inspecting sites, the EPA says oil and gas companies will have to choose "low-cost and innovative methane monitoring technologies" to detect leaks.

And the rule creates standards for reducing emissions from equipment, such as controllers, pumps and storage tanks.

Some states already have methane emissions programs. They will now have two years to submit them to EPA for approval to ensure they comply with the new federal regulation.

"With other countries also zeroing in on methane as a key climate risk, it's a signal to operators worldwide that clean-up time is here," said Fred Krupp, Environmental Defense Fund president in a statement. EDF is among groups that have established methane monitoring programs, including plans to launch a $90 million satellite to detect methane from oil and gas fields.

Even though the new rules are aimed at the oil industry, they're getting praise from some larger companies.

"BP welcomes the finalization of a federal methane rule for new, modified and – for the first time – existing sources," Orlando Alvarez, chairman and president of BP America said in a statement.

But smaller companies have been critical, fearing increased costs that could make some wells unprofitable.

The industry's largest trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, says it's still reviewing the final rule. Earlier this year, API detailed its concerns in comments submitted to the EPA. Among them, API mentioned potential legal issues with using third-party monitors for the "Super Emitter Program." The group said the EPA "must establish requirements for monitoring of third-party data" and provide limits on how that information is released to the public.

A senior EPA official says the agency made changes based on such comments. The official says now the EPA will certify groups with methane monitoring expertise, assess reports of releases for accuracy and then notify a responsible company of the release so they can fix it.

It's not yet clear whether that will satisfy API's concerns but the comments highlight something many people involved in this rulemaking process assume: the new regulations will likely be challenged in court.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Brady
Jeff Brady is the Climate and Energy Correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. He reports on the intersection of climate change and politics to reveal whether and how the U.S. is meeting its obligations to address the breakdown of the climate. And his reporting examines who's reshaping the energy system and who are the winners and losers. A key element of Brady's reporting is holding accountable those who block or stall efforts to address climate change in an effort to preserve their business.