Obama takes on fracking with new plan to slash methane emissions

New regulations will take on the potent greenhouse gas in a big way -- but they won't "solve" fracking

Published January 14, 2015 3:23PM (EST)

     (Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock)
(Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock)

First carbon, then ozone and now, at long last, methane. The White House just announced that it's gearing up to take on the potent greenhouse gas -- which is more than 86 times more damaging to the atmosphere, in the short-term, than carbon -- with new regulations aimed at reducing emissions by up to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025.

The rules, which are due out in 2016, will be the federal government's first effort to address the growing problem of methane pollution, which has accompanied the United States' boom in natural gas production. Methane escapes throughout the oil and gas production process, and is sometimes released into the atmosphere through venting and flaring, and all told it counts for about 9 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The industry already has the ability to capture methane and then sell it, meaning many of the measures that will help it meet the new requirements, once they're finalized, can more or less pay for themselves. According to the Center for Policy Integrity, existing technology could reduce methane pollution from oil and gas operations by 42 to 48 percent at little to no net cost, and indeed, Politico reports that the administration will be relying heavily on the industry to voluntarily step up its game.

And the industry -- no surprises here -- is arguing that it doesn't need to be regulated at all, for that very reason. “We don’t need regulation to capture it, because we are incentivized to do it,” Howard Feldman, director of regulatory affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, told the New York Times.

The oil and gas sector's emissions are down -- about 16 percent below 1990 levels -- but those incentives haven't been enough to stop methane pollution from being a major problem. A bombshell study published last year in the journal Science found that methane leaks were occurring at a much higher rate than EPA estimates -- enough to negate the much-touted climate benefits of natural gas over oil. Without additional steps taken to reign emissions in, the White House said in a fact sheet, the sector's emissions are project to rise more than 25 percent by 2025.

Regulating methane is one of those doable measures that can have huge impact on climate change: its existence in the atmosphere is short-lived but destructive, and scientists say that cutting emissions now could slow global warming over the coming decades while buying some time for regions, like the Arctic, that are already suffering the effects of climate change most acutely. And it will, like other emissions-targeting regulations, serve as yet another example of the United States' "leading by doing" strategy going into the this year's global climate negotiations.

But environmental groups are quick to point out that the EPA is just going to go ahead and "solve" fracking. For one thing, the regulations will only apply to "new and modified" oil and gas facilities, while hoping that existing facilities get on board voluntarily. "Failing to immediately regulate existing oil and gas equipment nationwide misses 90 percent of the methane pollution from the industry," Conrad Schneider, the advocacy director for the Clean Air Task Force, said.

And others have expressed the concern that addressing this one, if admittedly major, problem with oil and gas production will clear the way for the administration to continue to promote natural gas as a "bridge fuel," ignoring the other ill effects of fracking -- such as air and water pollution -- while missing the larger point, which is that in order to avoid the worst of long-term climate change, we're going to have to leave most of the world's fossil fuels in the ground.

"Controlling methane...is not an end in itself and it will not make fracked oil and gas climate friendly," said Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club. "We must move swiftly to truly clean energy like wind, solar, and energy efficiency while establishing policies that keep fossil fuels in the ground."

By Lindsay Abrams

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Climate Change Epa Fracking Greenhouse-gas Emissions Methane Oil And Gas