The EPA Goes Halfway on Methane Emissions

Already exists? The rules don't apply.

Photographer: Daniel Ackler/Bloomberg

The Environmental Protection Agency's proposed new restrictions on methane emissions are a reasonable imposition on the oil and gas industry. Whether they're adequate to help fight climate change is another question, and the answer depends on what the government does next. 

Under the proposed rules, new or modified oil and gas wells would have to use pumps and compressors that better capture methane, and companies would have to work harder to find and fix leaks -- cutting the sector's methane emissions by 20 to 30 percent. That would be about halfway toward the Barack Obama administration's goal of pushing methane emissions from the oil and gas industry down 40 to 45 percent below their 2012 levels by 2025.

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Oil and gas producers counter that they're already reducing methane emissions, because it's in their own interest not to let the fuel escape into the air. But the financial and opportunity costs of stopping leaks can in fact exceed the benefits, so federal rules are needed. The rules are not onerous, in any case, as Colorado's experience with similar measures has demonstrated.

Hitting (or exceeding) the administration's 40- to 45-percent target is essential, because while methane makes up just 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, it traps heat in the atmosphere 28 to 36 times more effectively than carbon dioxide does. By some estimates, methane accounts for a quarter of the planetary warming already under way.

That's why, until methane emissions can be reduced, natural gas can't be the climate-change fighter it has the potential to be -- despite producing roughly half the carbon emissions that coal does.

The EPA has yet to explain what more it will do to reach its target once the new oil and gas rules are in place. One strategy would be to extend the new regulations to existing oil and gas wells.

Another would be to address methane emissions in agriculture, which are even greater than those in the natural gas and petroleum sector. Belching from cows and other livestock alone produces almost as much methane as oil and gas wells do.

The rules proposed this week are nonetheless an important step. Natural gas is central to the Obama administration's strategy for fighting climate change. But that depends on getting methane emissions under control.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.