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White House: Natural Gas, Landfills, and Mining Need to Reduce Methane Emissions

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Continuing its 2014 “pen and phone” strategy emphasizing Executive Branch action, on March 28, 2014, the White House issued its Climate Action Plan Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions. The plan outlines regulatory actions and voluntary plans that various federal agencies plan to undertake before the end of the Obama Administration to try to reduce methane emissions.

The plan targets the industries that are the largest percentage of domestic methane emissions, namely:  agriculture (36%), natural gas systems (23%), landfills (18%), coal mining (10%), petroleum systems (6%), and wastewater treatment (2%).  While EPA and the Department of Energy propose to reduce emissions from the largest segment, agriculture, through voluntary programs, the plan places a bulls-eye directly on the natural gas, landfills, and coal mining industries.  In particular, the plan outlines potentially issuing new regulations before the end of 2016 aimed at reducing methane emissions from the natural gas production sector and goals to release an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) regarding methane emissions from landfills, as well as a separate ANPR for regulating methane from the coal mining industry. 

Natural Gas Industry
According to the plan, the various segments of the natural gas industry are responsible for methane emissions are as follows: 

The recently issued NSPS OOOO, which regulates volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from hydraulically fractured wells, did not directly regulate methane but instead listed methane reductions as a co-benefit.  The White House acknowledges that this rule will significantly reduce emissions when fully implemented in 2015, but now EPA plans to issue a series of white papers in the spring of 2014 to solicit input regarding potentially significant sources of methane in the natural gas industry.  These white papers will emphasize emissions from oil and co-producing wells, liquids unloading, leaks, pneumatic devices, and compressors.  After soliciting peer review of these papers, EPA plans to assess what regulatory action specific to methane emissions should be taken, if any, and to issue any additional final rules by the end of 2016. 

The plan acknowledges efforts within the natural gas distribution sector to gather more information to improve the data available regarding methane emissions; however, no mention is made of important collaborative studies in the onshore production industry such as the recent project conducted by the University of Texas, Environmental Defense Fund, Anadarko, BG Group, Chevron, Encana, Pioneer, Shell, Southwestern Energy, Talisman Energy and XTO Energy.  This particular study concluded that actual methane emissions from well completions are 97% lower than calendar year 2011 national emission estimates because the majority of hydraulically fractured wells had equipment in place to reduce methane emissions.  Whether these results will factor into EPA’s decision-making regarding further methane regulation is unclear.

In addition to EPA, other agencies also have plans to take action to reduce methane emissions.  In particular, BLM plans to release a proposed rule later this year to reduce the loss of natural gas through venting and flaring from oil and gas leases on Federal and Indian lands.  The Department of the Interior is already obtaining input from tribes, industry, and stakeholders on this proposed rule, which is informally known as Onshore Order 9. 

Landfills Industry
EPA plans to take action on methane emissions from landfills.  Actions include updating current standards for new municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills this summer and issuing an ANPR this June on options to reduce methane emissions from existing landfills. 

Coal Mining Industry
Additionally, BLM plans to release an ANPR in April 2014 regarding the development of a program to capture and sell, or dispose of, waste mine methane on lands leased by the Federal government.  While the impact of these BLM rules may appear small because they will only affect Federal lands, it is conceivable that if adopted, EPA and states will look to these standards when adopting their own regulations on state and private lands.