Biden methane regulations target oil rigs, cattle
The plan would modestly reduce U.S. greenhouse gases, but small energy companies could feel the financial effects
During an international summit in Glasgow, Scotland, on Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration announced a plan to reduce U.S. emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as part of a renewed effort to fight climate change.
More than 120 world leaders attended this week’s COP26 climate conference, which aims to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels—a limit a United Nations climate panel says is necessary to prevent the worst consequences of climate change and sea level rise. To help reduce atmosphere-warming greenhouse gases, the United States and more than 100 other nations have signed the Global Methane Pledge, an agreement that aims to cut collective methane emissions by nearly one-third within the next decade. The U.S. plan for achieving its own cuts involves new regulations that would attempt to eliminate 75 percent of methane leaks from oil and gas industry operations. (Russia, China, India, and Australia have not signed on to the pledge.)
Environmental groups and some oil producers are hailing methane limits as a needed step toward reducing pollution and greenhouse gases. Last month, ExxonMobil said it was “committed to working with the U.S. government, the European Commission, and other governments to help achieve the objectives of the Pledge.”
But critics and some industry experts say the proposed U.S. regulations could raise energy prices and hurt smaller oil and gas companies that can’t afford to comply with stricter requirements.
Methane, the main component of natural gas, is the second most significant greenhouse gas behind carbon dioxide, accounting for 10 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Although it dissipates quickly in the atmosphere, its warming effects are 80 times that of CO2 in the short term. The main sources of methane emissions in the United States come from agriculture, the oil and gas industry, landfills, and coal mining.
The proposed Biden administration regulations, focused on reducing leaks from the United States’ roughly 1 million existing wells and 3 million miles of transmission lines, would only reduce a fraction of the country’s overall contribution to greenhouse gases. While the U.S. produces more than 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, the savings from the methane proposal would be around 70 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. Biden hopes to reduce U.S. carbon emissions to half of 2005 levels, but Congress is unlikely to pass such an ambitious plan.
To reduce methane, the Biden administration is using the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department, and the Transportation Department to implement stricter control of leaks from oil and gas mining and transmission lines—reducing methane flaring and plugging or capturing leaked methane gas from wellheads or pipes. The proposed rules, stricter than previous methane rules implemented under the Obama administration, would apply for the first time to older wells built or modified before 2015.
But meeting stricter standards could be tricky for smaller gas companies, and those older wells make up about 90 percent of all wells in the United States. Many of them produce very small amounts of oil each day, and companies could find it cost-prohibitive to detect and eliminate methane leaks from such sources.
“If you’ve got a small well, and it’s going to cost you a fortune to install monitoring equipment, you might just shut down the well rather than bother,” said Kenny Stein, the policy director of the Institute for Energy Research in Washington, D.C.
Lost methane represents lost profits for oil and gas companies, and the industry has already been working toward voluntarily reducing leaks. In North Dakota, a major oil-producing state, Gov. Doug Burgum criticized the Biden plan in a statement this week. “The way to address methane emissions is through innovation, not redundant and burdensome regulations that will only drive energy production overseas, where it is produced less cleanly and efficiently,” he said.
A surprisingly large amount of methane emissions comes from cows. According to the EPA, about 37 percent of methane in the United States comes from manure and “enteric fermentation,” a technical term describing what occurs in the stomachs of ruminants.
The administration hopes to address those emissions, too. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said officials will work with farmers to find solutions for reducing methane from livestock, including by altering the animals’ diets.
The White House noted that reducing methane leaks from oil and gas operations would have the added benefit of reducing volatile organic compounds and associated toxins that produce smog and have harmful health effects.
But Stein said regulation is already in place to limit volatile organic compounds. He noted that the new EPA regulations are not in final form and said court challenges were certain. The agency is collecting public comments on the proposal and won’t issue final regulations until next year.
It’s unclear how strict the agency ultimately will be with smaller oil companies, and Stein said the current proposal is vague about how the agency would ensure companies were complying: “There are leaks going on all the time, and, frankly, it’s impossible to measure all these leaks.”
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