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Obama Administration Sets its Sights on Methane Emissions

riedel, adam, manattConsistent with its continuing efforts to combat climate change through executive action, the White House recently released its “Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions.”  This document, part of the administration’s larger Climate Action Plan, puts forth a plan to reduce domestic methane emissions.  The strategy targets four sources of emissions for methane reductions: landfills, coal mines, agriculture, and oil and gas.  While the methane reduction strategy focuses heavily on voluntarily measures for most of the target sources, the document strongly suggests that the oil and gas industry could be subject, for the first time, to federal methane emissions regulations by 2016.

Methane is a greenhouse gas with 20 times the global warming potency of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Methane’s relatively high global warming potential makes it an attractive target for GHG reduction efforts.  Moreover, the availability of cost-effective technologies for the capture of methane, combined with concerns over increased methane emissions stemming from the fracking boom, have increased attention in recent years on reducing methane emissions as part of overall efforts to combat climate change.

The four key sources that are the focus of the administration’s strategy account for the vast majority of methane emissions in the United States.  For landfills, coal mines, and agriculture, the strategy largely focuses on methane reductions that can be achieved through voluntary programs and limited rulemaking. However, with regards to the oil and gas sector, the strategy calls for a potentially more aggressive regulatory posture and indicates that the EPA is considering issuing regulations under the federal Clean Air Act (“CAA”) to compel reductions in methane emissions.  This would be a significant development as EPA has not directly regulated methane emissions under the CAA previously.  Moreover, if EPA establishes its regulatory authority over methane under the CAA, such an action would ostensibly provide the legal groundwork for additional regulation of methane emissions in the future.

The plan calls for EPA to release a series of white papers in the spring of 2014 on several sources of methane emissions in the oil and gas sector, including oil and co-producing wells, liquids unloading, leaks, pneumatic devices and compressors. In the fall of 2014, EPA will make a determination about what, if any, regulatory action it will take with regards to methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.  If EPA decides to take regulatory action, it will culminate with regulations in place by the end of 2016.

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