New U.S. rule targets methane emissions

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

WASHINGTON -- The Biden administration on Saturday issued a final rule aimed at reducing methane emissions, targeting the U.S. oil and natural gas industry for its role in global warming.

The Environmental Protection Agency said the rule will sharply reduce methane and other harmful air pollutants generated by the oil and gas industry, promote use of cutting-edge methane detection technologies and deliver significant public health benefits in the form of reduced hospital visits, lost school days and even fewer deaths. Air pollution from oil and gas operations can cause cancer, harm the nervous and respiratory systems, and contribute to birth defects. Methane is an especially potent greenhouse gas that's at least 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in warming the atmosphere during the first two decades after its release.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan and White House climate adviser Ali Zaidi announced the final rule at the U.N. climate conference in the United Arab Emirates. Separately, the president of the climate summit announced Saturday that 50 oil companies representing nearly half of global production have pledged to reach near-zero methane emissions and end routine flaring in their operations by 2030.

Vice President Kamala Harris, the top American representative at the summit, said the United States and other nations must act boldly to confront the fallout from climate change.

"The urgency of this moment is clear," Harris said. "The clock is no longer just ticking. It is banging. And we must make up for lost time."

The U.S. rule on methane emissions is part of a broader effort by the Biden administration that includes financial incentives to buy electric vehicles and upgrade infrastructure -- spending that Harris said will total roughly $1 trillion over 10 years.

Oil and gas operations are the largest industrial source of methane, the main component in natural gas. It is responsible for about one-third of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Sharp cuts in methane emissions are a global priority to slow the rate of climate change and are a major topic at the conference, known as COP28.

The U.S. government estimates that the requirements would prevent about 58 million tons of methane from being released into the atmosphere from 2024 to 2038. And because of methane's potency, that's roughly equivalent to all the carbon dioxide emitted by the power sector in 2021.

"On Day One, President [Joe] Biden restored America's critical role as the global leader in confronting climate change," Regan said, referring to Biden's actions returning the U.S. to the Paris climate agreement and ordering an immediate review of environmental regulations rolled back by the previous administration.

The methane rule finalizes a proposal Biden made at a U.N. climate conference in Scotland in 2021 and expanded a year later at a climate conference in Egypt. It targets emissions from existing oil and gas wells nationwide, rather than focusing only on new wells, as previous EPA regulations have done. It also regulates smaller wells that will be required to find and plug methane leaks. Such wells are subject to an initial inspection but are rarely checked again for leaks.

Studies have found that smaller wells produce just 6% of the nation's oil and gas but account for up to half the methane emissions from well sites.

The plan also will phase in a requirement for energy companies to eliminate routine flaring, or burning of natural gas that is produced by new oil wells.

The new methane rule will help ensure that the United States meets a goal set by more than 100 nations to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030 from 2020 levels, Regan said.

The EPA rule is just one of more than 100 actions the Biden administration has taken to reduce methane emissions, Zaidi added.

"From mobilizing billions in investment to plug orphaned wells, patch leaky pipes and reclaim abandoned mines, to setting strong standards that will cut pollution from the oil and gas sector, the Biden-Harris administration is putting the full weight of the federal government into slashing harmful methane pollution," he said.

The new rule will be coordinated with a methane fee approved in the 2022 climate law. The fee, set to take effect next year, will charge energy producers that exceed a certain level of methane emissions as much as $1,500 per metric ton of methane. The plan marks the first time the U.S. government has directly imposed a fee, or tax, on greenhouse gas emissions.

The law allows exemptions for companies that comply with the EPA's standards or fall below a certain emissions threshold. It also includes $1.5 billion in grants and other spending to help companies and local communities improve monitoring and data collection and find and repair natural gas leaks. The EPA also gave companies more time to replace some leak-prone devices after industry officials warned that long supply chain delays would make it impossible to procure new equipment in time.

The EPA held firm on its controversial plan to empower private citizens and groups to help police the industry by requiring oil and gas companies to investigate incidents when notified by the agency that third parties had detected large emissions events at their sites. The planned super emitters program would effectively elevate the role and importance of methane surveillance -- whether done by activists wielding infrared cameras or satellites circling the globe. Supporters say the initiative could push oil companies to respond more swiftly to leaks that otherwise could go unreported.

However, in response to industry criticism, the EPA altered its earlier proposal to ensure that the agency first vets those third-party reports and limit when they can be filed.

The EPA projects that the requirements could add an extra 25 cents to the cost of a barrel of oil in 2038 -- though the agency forecasts total net benefits of at least $7.3 billion a year from averted harm to the climate and human health tied to ozone exposure.

Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, called the new rule a victory for public health.

Methane has been shown to leak into the atmosphere during every stage of oil and gas production, Wimmer said, and people who live near oil and gas wells are especially vulnerable to these exposure risks.

David Doniger, a climate expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called methane a "super-polluter." He said in an interview that the Biden plan "takes a very solid whack at climate pollution. I wish this had happened 10 years ago [under the Obama administration], but I'm really happy it's happening now."

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said the new rule ensures that "the U.S. now has the most protective methane pollution limits on the books. With other countries also zeroing in on methane as a key climate risk, it's a signal to operators worldwide that cleanup time is here," he said.

The American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's top lobbying group, said it was reviewing the rule to see whether it meets a dual goal of reducing emissions while meeting rising energy demand.

"Smart federal regulation can help build on industry's progress to date," said Dustin Meyer, an API vice president.

The oil industry has generally welcomed direct federal regulation on methane, preferring a national standard to a hodgepodge of state rules. Even so, energy companies have asked EPA to exempt hundreds of thousands of the nation's smallest wells from the pending rule.

Information for this article was contributed by Matthew Daly and Will Weissert of The Associated Press and by Jennifer A. Dlouhy of Bloomberg News (TNS).

  photo  Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
 
 
  photo  Michael Regan, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, speaks at the U.S. Center at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel)
 
 
  photo  Michael Regan, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, speaks at the U.S. Center at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel)
 
 
  photo  FILE - White House climate adviser Ali Zaidi attends a speech by President Joe Biden about supply chain issues in the Indian Treaty Room on the White House complex in Washington, Nov. 27, 2023. The Biden administration has issued a final rule aimed at reducing methane emissions, targeting the US oil and natural gas industry for its role in global warming. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
 
 
  photo  Michael Regan, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, speaks at the U.S. Center at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel)
 
 
  photo  FILE - A flare to burn methane from oil production is seen on a well pad, Aug. 26, 2021, near Watford City, N.D. On Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, the Biden administration issued a final rule aimed at reducing methane emissions, targeting the U.S. oil and natural gas industry for its role in global warming as President Joe Biden seeks to advance his climate legacy. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)