Capping the Other Greenhouse Gas

Who says we can't have it all?

Photographer: Robert Nickelsberg via Getty Images

In President Barack Obama's fight against climate-changing emissions, carbon dioxide has so far been the chief target -- and methane has been given a pass. So the president's promise this week to finally create new rules that would cut methane emissions by almost half over the next 10 years is most welcome.

Methane makes up only a tenth of U.S. greenhouse-gas pollution and it breaks down in the atmosphere faster than carbon does, yet it's 25 times more effective than carbon at trapping heat. It's also very useful stuff, the main component of natural gas, so oil and gas companies have an incentive not to waste it by letting it escape into the air.

Indeed, since 1990, the sector has reduced methane emissions by 16 percent, even as it has increased natural gas production by 37 percent -- by stopping leaks at extraction wells, including fracking sites, and plugging leaks in pipelines and elsewhere along the supply chain. Oil and gas industry groups say this makes any new methane restrictions unnecessary.

However, given the current pace of expansion in oil and natural gas production, without regulations, methane emissions will increase by 25 percent over the next 10 years, the Environmental Protection Agency predicts. Even if that figure is high, as the industry argues, regulations are still important to ensure that emissions shrink rather than grow.

In writing new rules, the EPA will aim to reduce methane leaks by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025 -- enough natural gas to heat 2 million homes for a year. And it plans to do so by restricting emissions only for new or modified oil and gas wells and pipelines. When it comes to existing operations, companies will be encouraged to act voluntarily. Ideally, the EPA's new rules will serve as standard practice throughout the industry.

The rules themselves should thus codify the best practices being followed now, which oil and gas companies have demonstrated are possible.

The industry's resistance to regulation isn't without merit. Inflexible, one-size-fits-all rules could stymie the innovation that's allowed producers to reduce emissions so far, by preventing them from trying new techniques, as the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association, warns.

Expense matters too, but new rules shouldn't be an unbearable financial burden. One recent study has found the industry could reduce emissions enough to meet the government's target for a cost of about one penny for every thousand cubic feet of natural gas produced. That would mean increasing the industry's annual capital spending by just 1 percent.

Thanks to fracking and other new extraction technologies, the U.S. has become the world's largest producer of natural gas, lowering the cost of energy for businesses and homes alike, creating jobs, and saving people money. New EPA methane rules, reasonably written and applied, can keep the shale boom going -- and still put a tighter lid on greenhouse gases.

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