Obama has a plan to cut down on methane leaks

Sep 4, 2015

The Obama administration has been rolling out a series of new environmental regulations ahead of the UN climate summit later this year. Their latest effort calls for a more than 40 percent reduction in methane from new oil and gas wells.

Professor Pat Parenteau of the Vermont Law School says the new regulations are an important step in reducing climate change. 

“The latest studies are that methane in the short run, in the 20-year time frame, is 87 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon. And in the longer timeframe of 100 years, it's about 37 times more potent. So [it’s] very important, say the scientists, to get a handle on methane emissions,” Parenteau says. 

The new regulations, which would apply to wells that produce natural gas, are designed to reduce emissions of methane, benzene and xylene from wells and compressor stations. And Parenteau says the new standards are something states have been calling for. 

“These are very welcome rules,” Parenteau says. “The states sued EPA some years ago, challenging the failure of EPA to set specific methane standards for these gas production wells, and so EPA has now done so.”

Still, there are many who oppose the new regulations, and legal challenges to the rules are expected. 

“My guess is that most of the industry, while they may not be happy with these rules, are probably going to accept them. The publicity around fracking has gotten to the point where I think the gas industry knows that it needs to be doing more to convince the public that it's doing everything it can to make gas safe and environmentally sound, so I guess I would - would hope to see that the industry would actually accept and maybe even embrace these rules and then use them as an argument in favor of developing yet more gas resources,” says Parenteau. 

While many welcome the new regulations, scientists are still unsure of how far the rules go toward making natural gas a viable fuel from an environmental perspective.

“We're a long way, frankly, from understanding what the net effect of relying on natural gas is in terms of achieving some of these really stringent climate goals,” says Parenteau. “This is only looking at the production end of the natural gas system. If you think about all the thousands of miles of pipelines and distribution systems ... leaks occur at every stage of the process and this rule is only looking at the front end of it. So the total loss of methane from the entire natural gas system is actually unknown.”

Nonetheless, many are hoping the proposed regulations will give American negotiators a stronger position at the Paris climate negotiations, which start Nov. 30. 

“Right now, the United States has earned itself a lot of credibility with this plan in places like China and India,” Parenteau says. “If this rule is derailed by the courts, that could affect, I think, the US leverage over some of the major emitters. So there is right now, I think, a window where opponents of the rule are trying to do all they can to send a signal to the rest of the world that although President Obama is on board with this rule, a large portion of America is not, and [they may] try to influence perhaps the course of the negotiations in Paris away from forcing really binding targets on the US.”

This article is based on a story that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.