The Obama administration released new pollution rules on oil and natural gas production Tuesday to predictable howls from industry. The danger, though, is that the rules won’t do enough to achieve the United States’ climate goals.
The fracking boom has opened vast deposits of American oil and natural gas for extraction, and that’s been a good thing. The industry has created jobs and cut fuel imports. Natural gas, now cheap, has substituted for dirty coal in electricity production. When burned, natural gas produces significantly fewer greenhouse emissions than coal. Fuel switching has therefore helped the country advance toward its climate change targets.
But there’s a major problem: Methane, the primary constituent in natural gas, is an extremely potent greenhouse agent when it escapes from wells or pipelines without being burned. Even relatively small amounts of leakage can wipe away the climate benefits of switching to natural gas. That’s why President Barack Obama set a goal of reducing methane leakage by 40 percent to 45 percent by 2025.
The Environmental Protection Agency took a step toward that goal on Tuesday. The agency rolled out rules requiring the oil and gas industry to take more care not to leak methane from new or significantly altered wells, compressors, pneumatic pumps and other potential sources. Environmental groups have long argued that these sorts of upgrades are among the cheapest ways to cut greenhouse emissions. The EPA, meanwhile, points out that the rules should also prevent unhealthful air pollution around oil and gas facilities.
The industry counters that companies have already cut methane leakage even as oil and gas production have shot up, pointing out it has an economic incentive to keep its product from leaking. That’s true, up to a point, but these companies don’t have to account for the climate impacts of that leakage so their incentive may be less than what society’s interests would dictate. Until the country has an effective price on carbon that would force companies to account for their greenhouse impact, this line of argument will not be convincing.
Also released Tuesday was a report underscoring the need to act on methane emissions, and soon. The study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, found that previous EPA estimates of leakage rates from natural gas collection and processing facilities were far too low. It is findings such as these that have convinced environmental groups that the Obama administration must set comprehensive rules that would be much more ambitious than those announced Tuesday, covering existing infrastructure, not just new or significantly rebuilt facilities. If, after serious study, the EPA is confident that the government will reach its methane goal without a broader crackdown, so much the better. But federal and state regulators shouldn’t hesitate to go further if that promise won’t be realized.