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Tempers flare over newly proposed methane rule

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — President Barack Obama’s order this week for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to create a rule that would control methane emissions from existing oil and gas operations is drawing lots of praise from environmentalists and anger from industry representatives.

The rule would be the third new federal regulation in the works to control methane emissions. The EPA released a proposed rule last  summer to control emissions on new and modified operations, and the Bureau of Land Management proposed one in January to cover both new and existing infrastructure on all federal lands.

The lack of EPA mandates for existing operations in the current proposal prompted Obama to announce the extension of federal efforts with yet another rule.

But with the oil and gas industry in crisis from plummeting commodity prices, industry leaders say so many rules coming hard and fast could cripple producers.

“We’re seeing layer upon layer of regulations coming at us on methane emissions,” said New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesman Wally Drangmeister. “It’s getting ridiculous.”

Obama’s announcement is part of a package of environmental cooperation agreements reached at a summit with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that commit both countries to lowering greenhouse gas emissions to meet international goals set out in Paris last year to control global warming.

“The administration continues to blindly pile on regulation after regulation without even letting the emissions reductions it has already imposed take effect,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance in Denver. “All these regulations make developing American oil and natural gas more costly while giving an advantage to producers in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia.”

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But environmentalists said controlling methane emissions from existing oil and gas operations is critical to achieve the Obama administration’s stated goal of reducing methane in the atmosphere by between 40 and 45 percent by 2025, something Canada also agreed to at Thursday’s summit.

“An existing-source rule is essential to meet the Paris agreements,” said Camilla Feibelman, executive director of the Sierra Club Rio Grande chapter. “By 2018, the largest majority of methane emissions being spewed into the atmosphere will come from wells already in operation as of 2011.”

EPA and BLM rules would require producers to limit venting and flaring from oil and gas wells, pipelines and other infrastructure. They would also need to periodically inspect operations for leaks and replace outdated equipment.

Methane emissions, which are about 80 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas over the first 20 years than carbon dioxide, make up about 9 percent of all emissions in the U.S., according to federal agencies.

But with oil and natural gas prices so low today, the industry says producers will opt to shut down many wells in New Mexico and elsewhere, particularly marginal wells that are already losing money.

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