White House Oil and Gas Methane Strategy: Goals and First Steps, But Lots More To Do

The White House today announced a new goal of cutting dangerous methane pollution from the oil and gas industry 40-45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025, and set in motion the first regulatory steps towards meeting that goal.

The oil and gas sector ranks as our second largest industrial contributor to climate change after power plants, and tackling this sector's rampant methane pollution is the biggest new step the Administration can take to fight climate change, while reducing harmful air pollution that endangers families and communities at the same time. It's a step NRDC has long been calling for, most recently in our "Waste Not" report, which offered the agency a road map for cutting this pollution from the industry in half.

The Administration's 40-45 percent reduction goal establishes a clear target and a yardstick for measuring performance. As first steps, the Environmental Protection Agency will set two kinds of Clean Air Act standards. EPA will set standards under Section 111(b) of the Act to curb methane pollution from new and modified oil and gas production, processing and transmission equipment. These standards will apply nationwide. It's important to use state-of-the-art pollution controls as new equipment is installed.

The vast bulk of the oil and gas industry's methane leakage, however, comes from existing installations and equipment. EPA has the authority to curb methane from existing equipment under Section 111(d) of the Act; indeed, EPA is legally required to do so once it issues the new source standards. But, disappointingly, today's announcement does not include a commitment to set methane standards for existing equipment. Rather, it takes an indirect and much less effective approach.

Under today's plan, EPA will set standards limiting other pollutants (called "volatile organic compounds") from existing facilities. These VOC standards will catch methane where they apply, but by law they apply only in parts of the country that fail to meet the public health standards for ozone pollution. Here's the rub: Most of the existing oil and gas infrastructure is located outside these areas and will be untouched by VOC standards. And even in smog-ridden places, the VOC standards will not reach all the equipment that methane standards would.

Like those cell phone ads we've all seen on TV, the smog-based provisions of the Clean Air Act simply don't provide the nationwide coverage we need. In fact, NRDC estimates that the planned measures will achieve at most only about one-seventh of the reductions needed to meet the Administration's 40-45 percent reduction goal, because the bulk of methane emissions from existing oil and gas equipment will not be covered. To effectively curb methane leakage from the existing oil and gas infrastructure, we need the nationwide coverage that only Section 111(d) standards can provide.

White House and EPA officials this morning acknowledged that their initial regulatory steps would not themselves be enough to meet their methane reduction goal. They talked about voluntary programs for existing equipment and sidestepped questions about methane standards under Section 111(d).

The Administration deserves kudos for setting a significant methane reduction goal, and for getting started on long-overdue oil and gas pollution standards. But the bottom line is that we can't rely on this industry to voluntarily police itself. That's why NRDC will keep pressing for the direct and nationwide approach of setting methane standards for existing equipment under Section 111(d).

Update Jan. 17: EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on Friday put the oil and gas industry on notice that it still faces nationwide standards under Section 111(d) to curb methane leakage existing infrastructure, unless voluntary initiatives produce comparable results in a timely fashion. As reported in Greenwire, McCarthy said: "If existing sources aggressively reduce their emissions, then it is not clear that there will be cost-effective reductions that will necessitate regulation on existing facilities." She added: "Hopefully by the time people begin to look at what are the next steps we have to take here beyond what we've already announced, that those steps will already have been taken." In other words, if the oil and gas industry wants to avoid Section 111(d) standards, it has a short window to scale up its voluntary programs quickly and to achieve deep methane reductions, not just from a few companies, but across the board. The clock is ticking, and NRDC will be watching.

This post co-authored by Meleah Geertsma.