Activists say Obama action on methane emissions 'misses 90% of pollution'
Barack Obama has defied a Republican Congress to move ahead on his climate agenda on Wednesday, cracking down on methane emissions from America's oil and natural gas boom.
In a further use of the president's executive authority, the White House unveiled a strategy aimed at cutting methane - one of the most powerful heat-trapping gases - by 40% to 45% over the next decade.
However, the plan applied only to future oil and gas wells and infrastructure - and not the thousands of existing sites which are leaking methane, campaigners noted.
The new methane strategy, unrolled at a time when Obama and Congress are locked in a standoff over the Keystone XL pipeline, was aimed at ensuring the president delivers on his promise to fight climate change, the White House told reporters in a conference call.
"The president has made it clear that he wants to move forward on implementing his climate action plan," Dan Utech, a White House official, told the call. "The steps we are talking about are significant and will put us on a path of reducing emissions 40% to 45% over the next 10 years."
He said the methane plans would also put the US on a trajectory to meet its overall climate goal, announced by Obama during a visit to Beijing last year, of reducing total greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% by 2025.
But campaigners said the White House had left a gaping loophole by leaving it up to industry to reduce methane emissions on existing operations.
"While setting methane standards for the first time is an important step, failing to immediately regulate existing oil and gas equipment nationwide misses 90% of the methane pollution from the industry," Conrad Schneider of the Clean Air Task Force said in a statement. "The administration is proposing to fight methane pollution with one hand tied behind its back."
The main industry lobby group said the new rules were unnecessary, and that oil and gas companies were already moving on their own to plug methane leaks.
"Onerous new regulations could threaten the shale energy revolution, America's role as a global energy superpower, and the dramatic reductions in CO2 emissions made possible by an abundant and affordable domestic supply of clean-burning natural gas," Jack Gerrard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement.
"This plan seems to be based on politics. We hope EPA [the Environmental Protection Agency] will work with industry during the regulatory process to ensure that any regulations are based on science and technology and do not impair the industry's ability to supply America with energy."
Obama throughout his presidency has touted an "all of the above" energy strategy, promoting the advantages of natural gas as a bridge to cleaner energy sources - despite a spate of new scientific findings on methane leaks.
With developments in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, the US is now the world's largest producer of natural gas and was on track to be the world's biggest producer of oil in 2015.
That has spiked emissions of methane - a greenhouse gas that has 87 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide over 20 years. Nearly 30% of methane emissions were produced by the oil and gas industry, the White House said.
Most of those greenhouse gas emissions are from leaky equipment - faulty casing on newly fracked wells, but also millions of miles of pipelines and ageing infrastructure.
The EPA had originally promised to announce a new methane plan by the end of last year.
"The bottom line is that while addressing new sources is a critical step, in order to get a 40% to 45% reduction in methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, the Obama administration must take stronger action to clean up existing sources." said Tim Ballo, a lawyer for Earthjustice, which has sued the administration to try to force regulation of the oil and gas industry. That case was on hold as of Wednesday.
Other campaign groups argued that it was not enough to clean up the oil and gas industry; Obama should get off fossil fuels entirely.
"Controlling methane, however, is not an end in itself and it will not make fracked oil and gas climate-friendly. Continued reliance on dirty fossil fuels is a dangerous course for our communities and our climate," Michael Brune, president of the Sierra Club, said in a statement.
The White House and the EPA, which will be executing the plan, said the rules proposed on Wednesday would be a first step.
"We are making it clear that we need to get reductions from existing sources. There is no doubt about that," Utech said. But he noted methane emissions were projected to rise 25% over the next decade without further action. "That is where the increases in emissions are coming from," he said. "What additional steps are appropriate will become more clear over time."
The methane strategy unveiled on Wednesday will use the Clean Air Act to set new regulations for future oil and gas wells and other facilities, and propose a range of voluntary guidelines for industry for existing sites.
According to a fact sheet provided by the White House, the EPA would work with states to propose new air quality standards, and with industry on voluntary measures to plug methane leaks.
The EPA will also aim to reduce methane by putting in place new air pollution standards for smog and for volatile organic compounds around oil and gas sites, officials said.
The agency said it would propose new guidelines for smog by this summer, with a view to setting final guidelines by 2016.
Those measures would indirectly target methane, industry experts said.
"If you take steps to reduce volatile organic compounds, those steps would automatically have the secondary benefit of reducing methane emissions," said Sandra Snyder, an environmental attorney at the Bracewell Giuliani law firm.
But the clock is ticking - on the methane regulations as on Obama's entire climate action plan, which relies almost exclusively on his executive authority.
Any new EPA regulations or guidelines would have to be put in place by the end of 2016, and Republicans in Congress and industry lobby groups are already mobilising to oppose the standards.
James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who heads the Senate environment and public works committee, said the new regulations were unnecessary and would drive up energy costs. But he did not immediately call for hearings on the new regulations.
"The EPA has once again announced plans to impose a mandate designed to stifle our domestic energy industries despite the successful voluntary steps made by US oil and gas companies to reduce methane emissions," Inhofe said in a statement.
Ryan Lance, the chief executive of Conoco Phillips, said his company was discouraged by the rules. "I'm a little disappointed that a voluntary programme didn't get a little bit more play. Industry is doing a lot of things to deal with the methane emissions problem," he told a seminar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "We are incentivised to deal with methane emissions. We want to keep it in the pipelines because it is a saleable product."