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EPA proposes ‘commonsense’ cuts in methane emissions from oil and gas

New rules are part of the Obama administration’s strategy to combat climate change

The White House is proposing to cut methane emissions from U.S. oil and gas production by nearly half over the next decade, in what was touted as a "commonsense" move toward curbing climate change.

The administration's target is to cut methane from oil and gas drilling by 40 to 45 percent by 2025, compared with 2012 levels. The move was not unexpected — officials set the same goal in a preliminary blueprint in January. Still, by moving forward with the official proposal, President Barack Obama is adding to a list of energy regulations that have drawn applause from environmentalists and the ire of energy industry advocates.

To meet the goal, the administration is expected to issue the first U.S. regulations cutting emissions from new natural gas wells, along with updated standards for drilling to reduce leakage from wells on public lands. It's unclear how much compliance with those regulations will cost the energy industry.

The Environmental Protection Agency said the new targets are "commonsense proposed standards," in a press release announcing the cuts.

"Today, through our cost-effective proposed standards, we are underscoring our commitment to reducing the pollution fueling climate change and protecting public health while supporting responsible energy development, transparency and accountability," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a prepared statement.

The administration is expected to finalize the rules next year shortly before Obama leaves office.

Methane, the key component of natural gas, tends to leak during oil and gas production. Although it makes up just a sliver of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, it is far more powerful than the more prevalent carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. That makes methane a top target for environmentalists concerned about global warming.

With his presidency drawing to a close, Obama has been in a rush to propose and finalize sweeping regulations targeting gases blamed for global warming.

The methane rule follows a landmark regulation he finalized earlier this month to cut carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants by 32 percent by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. The plan, a key element of his climate change strategy, drew immediate legal challenges from power companies and Republican-led states.

Obama also has proposed regulations targeting carbon pollution from airplanes and set new standards to improve fuel efficiency and reduce carbon dioxide pollution from trucks and vans.

In total he has set a goal to cut overall U.S. emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent over the next decade, as he seeks to leave a legacy of using the full range of his executive power to fight climate change and encourage other countries to do the same.

Katie Brown, a spokeswoman for Energy in Depth, an oil industry group, said methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing — also known as fracking — are already declining because of improved drilling techniques.

"Cheap natural gas has delivered substantial climate benefits that came largely from voluntary reductions by industry and technological innovation," she said. "Federal regulations, especially if crafted poorly, could inflict more pain on the men and women who work in the oil and gas industry."

Earlier this year, the administration said it intends at first to regulate emissions only from new or modified natural gas wells, meaning thousands of existing wells won't have to comply.

Environmentalists say that the goals announced under the proposed rule would be difficult to meet without targeting existing wells.

David Doniger, the climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said that the proposal is "a good start" but that the "EPA needs to follow up by setting methane leakage standards for existing oil and gas operations nationwide."

The proposed methane rule comes one day after Obama approved a final permit allowing Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean off the Alaska coast. Environmental groups have criticized the move, saying the permit clashes with the message he will deliver when he visits Alaska this month to emphasize the dangers of climate change.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that U.S. Arctic waters hold 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Shell is eager to explore in a basin that company officials say could be a game changer for domestic production.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday opposed Obama's decision to allow drilling in the Arctic Ocean, writing in a Twitter post that "The Arctic is a unique treasure. Given what we know, it's not worth the risk" of a major spill to allow drilling.

The Associated Press

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