New Federal Rules Target Methane Leaks, Flaring and Venting

As Aliso Canyon disaster continues, the Obama administration wants equipment updated and flaring of excess gas reduced.

Flaring at a natural gas well in Scott Township, Penn.
Flaring, like at a natural gas well in Scott Township, Penn., is being targeted by new Interior Department rules. Credit: WCN 24/7, via Flickr

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The Obama administration proposed new regulations Friday to cut the amount of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, leaking from fossil fuel facilities on public and tribal lands.

The announcement comes as a massive amount of methane continues to escape from a storage facility in Aliso Canyon, northwest of Los Angeles. It also follows the Interior Department’s decision last week to stop granting new leases for coal mining on public lands.

The Interior Department’s new methane rules aim to reduce leaks gradually over the next three years by requiring oil and gas operators to update faulty equipment and reduce the flaring and venting of excess gas. It is part of the Obama administration’s larger agenda to fight climate change, which aims specifically to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas industry by up to 45 percent by 2025.

Leaked methane has been shown to have dangerous health impacts on nearby communities, such as headaches and respiratory illness. The practice is also a massive waste of energy, Neil Kornze, the director for the Bureau of Land Management, told reporters Friday.

Between 2009 and 2014, 375 billion cubic feet of methane was vented, flared or leaked from oil and gas facilities on public and tribal lands—enough to power more than 5 million homes for a year, according to the Interior Department.

The regulations would “save enough energy to power all the households in Dallas,” Kornze said.

Janice Schneider, the assistant secretary for Land and Minerals Management at the Interior Department, said many oil and gas operators have taken steps to reduce methane emissions on their own, but that there are “other operators who aren’t as proactive.”

Kornze and Schneider said they are expecting the rules to be challenged in court, as most of the Obama administration’s climate and energy regulations have been.

The oil and gas industry called the rules unnecessary.

“We share the desire to reduce emissions and are leading efforts because capturing more natural gas helps us deliver more affordable energy to consumers,” Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement. “The incentive is built-in, and existing Bureau of Land Management guidelines already require conservation. Another duplicative rule at a time when methane emissions are falling and on top of an onslaught of other new BLM and EPA regulations could drive more energy production off federal lands.  That means less federal revenue, fewer jobs, higher costs for consumers, and less energy security.”

But environmentalists argued the new regulations are critical to fighting climate change and saving energy and money.

“BLM is taking an important step to ensure the responsible development of our nation’s natural resources,” said Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund, which has led a series of scientific studies into methane leaks and has called for stricter regulations. “In 2013, oil and gas companies on public and tribal lands wasted more than $330 million worth of gas through leaking, venting and flaring practices that allow billions of cubic feet of methane—both a climate pollutant and valuable energy resource—to escape into the atmosphere.”

Josh Mantell, carbon management campaign manager for The Wilderness Society, called the rules “a huge step forward toward ensuring public resources on federal lands are used for Americans’ benefit, and not wasted.”

Several states, including Colorado, North Dakota, Wyoming and Pennsylvania have already taken steps to limit the venting, flaring and leaking of methane from oil and gas facilities. As has the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Kornze said the aim is for the rules to be “complementary, and not duplicative” of the EPA’s regulations, put forth in August.

“The EPA’s authority looks at questions of pollution and emissions,” he said. “We are looking at it through waste prevention. Their regulations generally apply to new or modified operations. Ours apply to all operations, old and new.”

The public will have several months to comment on the proposed regulations. Kornze and Schneider said they hope to have the regulations finalized by the end of the year.