Biden proposes new rules to cut climate-warming methane emissions

Biden proposes new rules for reducing climate-warming methane emission
Zoomen this image toggle caption Al Grillo/AP Al Grillo/AP

The Biden administration proposes stricter regulations to cut methane leakage from the oil and gas industries. This comes as the U.N. climate leaders in Glasgow push countries to sign a global pledge not to emit methane. It is a more powerful climate warming gas than carbon dioxide.

Natural gas is mainly made up of methane. However, methane doesn't last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, reducing methane emissions immediately would have a significant impact on global warming.

Congress reinstated Obama-era methane regulations in April. However, they are only applicable to new or modified operations. These new rules will also apply to existing facilities if there is a major expansion.

Michael Regan, Administrator of the EPA, stated that "America is back" and was leading by example when confronting climate crisis with bold ambition.

According to his agency, the proposed regulations would reduce methane emissions by 41 million tons by 2035. This is more than the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide from all passenger vehicles in the country in 2019.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, (PHMSA) is issuing a final regulation that expands federal oversight to include natural gas pipelines. The Department of Transportation will regulate more than 425,000 miles of "gathering pipes" that transport gas from production sites to interstate lines.

"These new regulations, after years of development, represent a major step in improving and modernizing pipeline safety and environmental standards," stated U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

According to a senior administration official, PHMSA will also propose next year a safety rule for methane leaks from the 2.3 million mile of distribution pipelines within cities.

Oil industry splits over strict methane regulations

The largest human-caused sources of methane are the oil, gas, and coal industries. A study by the Environmental Defense Fund found that cutting methane emissions could reduce global warming by up to 30% in the short-term.

However, the industry is divided on whether more regulations should be implemented. The majority of big oil companies support more regulations, while smaller ones are opposed.

Large companies have a lot of natural gas investments. They fear that methane emissions could be weakened if they aren't controlled.

In a statement to NPR last spring, Shell U.S. President Gretchen Watkins stated that "We can't make the climate case against the widespread use natural gas if it isn't managed and contained."

She was reacting to legislation that President Biden signed, which reversed an Obama administration rollback on methane leak regulations. On Twitter, other large oil companies, such as Total, Equinor, and BP, expressed similar views.

At the time, smaller drillers believed that new regulations could be costly and put them out of business. Lee Fuller, Independent Petroleum Association of America, stated that his organization supports "cost-effective methane administration under the Clean Air Act", but would prefer special standards for small businesses or less profitable wells.

Colorado became the first state in 2014 to regulate methane emissions from the oil-and-gas industry. Based on information from oil and gas companies, the state found that methane production has increased slower than methane emission. A new study in Boston found that methane emissions along smaller distribution lines were six times greater than the state's estimates. According to the study authors, methane leaks may be greater in other cities than what was estimated by the EPA.

Methane is getting more attention

While carbon dioxide is the most prominent greenhouse gas, attention has been shifting to methane. A U.N. report in May called for immediate reductions in methane. It was deemed "the strongest lever" to slow climate change over 25 years.

Democrats have created several forms of a methane tax as President Biden attempts to pass legislation to support his climate change plan. Congress is still working out the details, but it would charge oil companies for certain amounts of methane. It could also pay them to reduce their emissions. The past methane fee proposals were opposed by the oil industry, as well as Democrats from fossil fuel states.

The United States and the European Union led a global methane pledge effort in Glasgow this week. It is a pledge that all countries sign to reduce their global methane emissions by 30% or more by 2030. According to the White House, this goal will reduce global warming by at most 0.2 degrees Celsius (0.36 Fahrenheit). So far, the pledge has been signed by heads of around 90 countries.

Sarah Smith, Clean Air Task Force said that "for too long this powerful super pollutant had fallen off the agenda of major climate summits while it has risen to all time highs." This could lead to "pushing our planet closer towards potentially irreversible tipping point," she said.

The EPA's announcement today is a proposal regulation. The agency is now collecting comments and final rules are expected before the end 2022.