Once again placing himself firmly on the side of environmentalists and opposite the oil and gas industry, President Obama on Wednesday rolled out long-awaited regulations to dramatically cut methane emissions over the next decade.
The move, just days before the State of the Union address, gives a clear indication that Mr. Obama wants to cement his legacy on climate change over the final two years of his presidency. Having already targeted power plants, cars and other sources of pollution, the administration is pushing regulations that will carry serious repercussions for the oil and gas sector, one of the greatest economic success stories of the past 10 years.
The announcement also sets up yet another potential political fight with congressional Republicans, who, along with many in the energy industry, panned the proposal as another unnecessary federal overreach that will stunt economic growth and hamper fuel production.
The administration noted that methane — the main component of natural gas — traps heat in the atmosphere even more effectively than does carbon dioxide, although far less methane finds its way into the planet’s atmosphere. Thus, the White House says, methane is a worthy target as part of Mr. Obama’s broader effort to combat climate change.
The Environmental Protection Agency will oversee the proposal in conjunction with other departments and agencies. It calls on the oil and gas industry to cut methane emissions by 40 percent to 45 percent by 2025.
The White House hasn’t offered a cost estimate for the energy industry to comply with the rule.
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“The U.S. is now the largest oil and gas producer in the world, providing an abundant source of energy to power and heat American homes and businesses,” White House energy and climate change adviser Dan Utech told reporters Wednesday. “At the same time, methane … is a potent greenhouse gas with 25 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide.”
But Republicans, energy analysts and oil and gas sector leaders argue that the administration has created a solution in search of a problem.
By the White House’s own acknowledgment, methane emissions have been reduced more than 16 percent since 1990, even though domestic natural gas production has risen by 37 percent over the same time.
Those figures, critics say, demonstrate that the energy industry is figuring out how to capture methane without harsh federal mandates.
“EPA’s proposed methane regulation is redundant, costly and unnecessary. Energy producers are already reducing methane emissions because methane is a valuable commodity. It would be like issuing regulations forcing ice cream makers to spill less ice cream,” said Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, a frequent critic of the administration’s environmental and climate change agenda.
“The Obama administration’s latest attack on American energy reaffirms that their agenda is not about the climate at all. It’s about driving up the cost of producing and using natural gas, oil, and coal in America,” he said.
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Republicans on Capitol Hill echoed those sentiments. They argue that reducing methane emissions — and, for that matter, carbon emissions — is laudable but should be driven by the free market and technological advances, not government regulations.
“Studies show that while our energy production has significantly increased, methane emissions have continued to decline. This is something that should be celebrated, not bound by new red tape,” said Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Ed Whitfield, Kentucky Republican and chairman of a subcommittee on energy and power.
“Our success has been — and should continue to be — rooted in new efficiencies created through technology and innovation, a commitment to continued safety enhancements, and greater permitting certainty,” they said.
The proposed regulations, which will be formally released this year and are expected to be made final next year, will apply only to new and modified oil and gas production sources.
Powerful environmental groups such as the Sierra Club urged the White House to take even greater action and target existing sources of methane emissions, including pipelines.
“We cannot afford to wait. Regulating methane directly is a critical step, but [the federal government] must act quickly to reduce methane emissions from all new and existing sources of methane pollution in the oil and gas sector,” said Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director.
Many of the technical details that would flesh out an EPA proposal have yet to be decided. The agency says it will meet with stakeholders in the coming months before issuing a proposed methane rule sometime over the summer. It expects to issue a final rule next year, and it’s not clear exactly when the proposal would go into effect.
The White House acknowledges that it has rolled out a set of regulations sure to anger the newly empowered Republicans in Congress. The two sides already are butting heads on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, with Republicans and some Democrats pushing legislation to approve the project.
Mr. Obama has vowed to veto that bill.
On methane, White House officials say they are confident, despite concerns among Republicans and energy industry leaders that the rule will stifle production, that the regulations can benefit the economy.
“There’s a way for us to take steps that are both good for the planet and good for the economy,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday aboard Air Force One.