Editorial Board

Regulating the Other Greenhouse Gas

The Interior Department proposed tough limits on methane. The EPA should follow suit.

Less waste, more gas.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The federal government's proposed limits on methane emissions from oil and gas wells on public land will protect the atmosphere against one of the most potent greenhouse gases known to science. Now the government needs to impose similar restrictions on wells on private land.

QuickTake Fracking

It's hard to overstate how crucial it is to keep methane from escaping -- quietly, invisibly -- into the air. While methane accounts for just 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, it's at least 25 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. And unlike carbon dioxide, which has limited commercial value (so far, anyway), methane is a fuel, and a relatively clean-burning one, so letting it slip into the air is wastes money while it hurts the climate.

The Interior Department's proposed rules, issued Friday, would require drillers to reduce the methane that leaks or is purposely vented or flared from wells on government land, cutting the emissions from these wells by half. This effect would be limited, however, because only 11 percent of the country's natural gas is extracted on public land, and only 5 percent of onshore oil production is on federal property.

QuickTake Climate Change

To make bigger difference, tighter rules would need to be applied to oil and gas wells on private land. The EPA moved in that direction last year, when it proposed regulations for new or modified wells on private land. However, existing wells, which often use out-of-date technology that allows greater methane leakage, are the bigger problem, and therefore in greater need of restrictions. The EPA should follow the Interior Department's lead.