(Bloomberg) -- The Biden administration is poised to unveil a crackdown on methane leaks from oil and gas wells that will be its most consequential action yet to reduce greenhouse gases -- but is still likely to disappoint climate activists.
The Environmental Protection Agency is expected within days to propose requirements for plugging leaks at hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells, according to people familiar with the drafted proposals. Yet the agency is expected to stop short of an outright ban on “flaring,” the burning off of excess natural gas, said the people. Flaring is a major source of climate-warming emissions.
The EPA measures will seek to strengthen existing mandates on newly drilled wells and impose first-of-their-kind requirements from hundreds of thousands of older wells that so far have escaped methane regulations. The proposals are on track to be announced before President Joe Biden arrives in Glasgow, Scotland, for the COP26 climate summit, said the people, who asked not to be named before a formal announcement.
Even without a flaring ban, the measures will anchor Biden’s promise to world leaders that -- absent congressional passage of his clean energy plan -- the U.S. will fulfill its Paris Agreement pledge to at least halve greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade from 2005 levels. The initiatives may also add momentum to a U.S.- and European Union-driven effort to recruit world leaders to collectively target a 30% cut in methane emissions by 2030.
“This will be really critical for the administration going into COP,” said Rosalie Winn, a senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund. “It will be a tangible piece of climate policy and a critical area for the administration to both meet its methane pledge and its broader climate commitment.”
That’s grown even more important amid ongoing congressional negotiations over Biden’s climate-and-social-spending bill. Even if lawmakers reach a deal in principle on key climate components, the measure is unlikely to clear Congress before Biden and other world leaders arrive in Glasgow on Sunday. However, regulations such as those on methane emissions are a key weapon in Biden’s climate arsenal; the administration plans to wield them against greenhouse gas releases from automobiles and power plants too.
“The speed with which the administration has developed these methane rules speaks volumes to their commitment to addressing the climate crisis,” said Sarah Smith, director of the Clean Air Task Force’s super pollutants program. “It’s a really big deal if the world’s No. 1 oil and gas producer is taking this on and cracking down on methane pollution across the industry.”
Methane, the chief component of natural gas, is blamed for a quarter of global warming today. And because it’s such a powerful short-lived greenhouse gas, packing most of its punch in the first two decades after its released, reductions now can deliver a big impact in restraining near-term warming and limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a critical tipping point.
The EPA proposals are expected to block companies from widely venting methane from oil wells where it sometimes is considered a less valuable byproduct of more profitable crude.
Administration officials have been deliberating over the proposal’s approach to routine, intentional flares, when excess natural gas is burned instead. Those flares convert natural gas into carbon dioxide, but when they burn incompletely or go out, methane vents directly into the atmosphere. The EPA could stop short of proposing a phase out or immediate ban on flaring and ask for public comment on the matter instead.
More than 70 community, health and environmental groups in September asked the EPA to follow the lead of state regulators in Colorado and New Mexico by banning routine flaring, after field surveys revealed widespread problems with intermittent or unlit flares throughout the Permian Basin in Texas.
“These flares are a huge source of emissions either because they are completely blown out so they are straight venting to the atmosphere or they are not combusting as efficiently as they should be so rather than destroying 98% of the gas that is sent to them they are only combusting a far lower percentage,” said Jon Goldstein, senior director of regulatory affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund.
“The best way that we know of to get after that source of pollution is to stop sending so much gas to flares in the first place and ban routine flaring,” he added.
It remains unclear how aggressively the EPA will target aging, low-producing sites that yield just a trickle of crude but can be a major source of methane. Environmentalists have pressured the agency to require oil and gas companies to keep vigilant watch over equipment, with monthly to quarterly checks, even for those low-producing wells that eke out fewer than 15 barrels of oil equivalent each day. Without regular checks, leaks at the sites can go undetected and keep spewing methane.
A major question is whether the EPA will propose widespread retrofits of oilfield equipment that by design leaks natural gas as part of its regular operation. Some oil and gas companies have pushed back against rigorous equipment replacement mandates for older wells, warning the cost of upgrades could make the sites unprofitable.
Republican lawmakers on Monday urged EPA Administrator Michael Regan to delay the proposals until an Energy Department study on low-producing wells is completed in December instead of unveiling the measures before the UN climate summit. Rushing “to meet an arbitrary political deadline set by unelected bureaucrats in Washington would needlessly jeopardize our nation’s oil and gas producers,” Representative Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming, said on Twitter.
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