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Obama Administration Unveils Methane Strategy

The White House on Friday released its much-anticipated methane strategy, outlining steps and a timetable for reducing methane emissions from the oil and natural gas sector and other sources. The timetable runs through the remainder of the Obama administration.

Responsibility for reducing the emissions of what environmentalists and others consider a potent greenhouse gas (GHG) will fall on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Departments of Energy (DOE) and the Interior. Environmental groups, led by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), have been lobbying hard for a tough federal program.

"This [federal] strategy has the potential to deliver the federal regulatory oversight that is needed to complement state efforts and make sure that all of the oil/gas industry meets basic, common sense standards to deploy readily available technologies," said EDF President Fred Krupp.

America's Natural Gas Alliance, which includes major shale gas producers, focused on President Obama's recognition of the values of natural gas and the voluntary steps the industry has taken to cut methane emissions.

 "We appreciate that the administration has initiated a collaborative process, and we look forward to being part of the solution to addressing methane emissions," said the alliance’s CEO Marty Durbin. "Thanks to greater natural gas use, we have reduced energy-related emissions across the United States to 1994 levels."

Interstate Natural Gas Association CEO Don Santa said his industry will be working with the administration on "research/development and other opportunities to quantify and encourage even greater methane reductions from natural gas transmission pipelines." Santa said INGAA member pipelines want to further reduce emissions from their systems "not only for environmental reasons, but for safety and business reasons."

Calling emissions from natural gas operations "a declining trend," American Gas Association (AGA) Chairman Gregg Kantor, CEO at Portland, OR-based NW Natural, said the industry is not "resting on its laurels," remaining committed to safety and "continually upgrading our infrastructure."

The strategy is supposed to build on early efforts since the president outlined his climate change action plan last June in a speech at Georgetown University (see Daily GPI,June 26, 2013), seeking to further cut emissions from landfills, coal mining, agriculture and oil/gas systems through "cost-effective voluntary actions and common sense standards."

Later this spring, the EPA will assess several potentially significant sources of methane and other emissions in the oil and gas industry, aimed at putting methane emission regulations in place by the end of 2016. And later this year, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will update standards for cutting the venting or flaring of gas on public lands.

For other major methane sources, such as  landfills, coal mines and agriculture, the EPA, BLM and a combination of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, EPA and DOE will be updating or developing new standards.

In anticipation of the Obama administration laying out its strategy, EDF officials hosted a background briefing for news media on Thursday to reiterate their support for stepped-up federal and state efforts to cut methane emissions from the U.S. oil and natural gas sector.

EDF's climate and methane experts, VP Mark Brownstein, and Chief Scientist Steven Hamburg,  told a webcast that recent studies have indicated that methane emissions from oil and gas operations are at least 50% higher than previously estimated (see Daily GPI,Feb. 14).

Furthermore, the EDF officials accused the industry of trying to minimize oil and gas's contribution to the problem, although they acknowledged that some individual companies are being responsive to the need to cut oilfield flaring and other sources of methane emissions.

EDF's Brownstein called reducing methane emissions "absolutely critical to combating climate change," and he applauded the White House for developing a strategy for reducing these emissions in the oil and gas sector, which he said accounts for a third of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. "The federal government has an active and important role to play," he said.

In launching the White House strategy, Obama energy adviser Dan Utech said methane emissions make up nearly 9% of the GHG emissions in the nation as a result of human activity.

"Reducing methane emissions is a powerful way to take action on climate change and putting methane to use can support local economies with a source of clean energy that generates revenue, spurs investment and jobs, improves safety and leads to cleaner air," Utech said.

Hamburg called oil and gas "America's largest industrial source of methane emissions," and [fossil fuel] production is expanding rapidly in the United States and with it the potential for increased methane emissions. "Natural gas is essentially methane and has a big impact on the environment."

In response to questions, the EDF officials drew short in recommending that the federal government enact more regulations against methane emissions, and they acknowledged that natural gas is needed overall to help reduce the nation's carbon footprint going forward.

Hamburg noted that a second report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is scheduled to be released in early April and will "clearly show that the impacts of climate change are large and warrant acting now."

In its earlier study, IPCC estimated that methane was 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a GHG trapping heat at the earth's surface.

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