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EPA targets oil drilling operations in quest to reduce methane

The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed expanding regulatory controls for methane and other air pollution from some new oil wells.

The EPA touted the rule as one part of the Obama administration's plan to tackle climate change. The new rule is one step toward the administration's goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40-45 percent (based on 2012 levels) by 2025. Methane leaks represent a relatively small portion of overall greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., but methane is far more potent than carbon dioxide.

EPA's air policy chief, Janet McCabe, told reporters Tuesday that the proposed rule could cut up to 400,000 short tons of methane in 2025, and "reductions could be as high as 20 to 30 percent of the national estimated emissions for 2012," McCabe said.

Just how the administration would fulfill the rest of its goal, however, she did not say. There are a "variety of approaches that folks are looking at -- EPA's not the only agency looking at these actions," she said.

The proposal would expand an oil and natural gas rule issued in 2012, which went into effect earlier this year, requiring natural gas producers to capture methane leaks at wellheads. Finding and stopping leaks is generally a financial win for natural gas producers, for whom escaping methane is a lost product.

The agency wants to add new controls that would extend the requirements to new oil wells and compressors. Methane tends to escape at various points of the drilling process for natural gas and oil drilling, and the rule requires industry to find and repair leaks and limit emissions from equipment involved in the transmission process.

That could mean new controls for oil producers in Alaska, where fracking has been used for decades.

The proposed rule does exempt several types of devices on Alaska's North Slope from monitoring requirements.

That follows a trend of Alaska industries getting a pass on President Barack Obama's regulatory efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The state's power plants are currently exempt from the EPA's Clean Power Plan, and so far, the Obama administration has ignored heavy pressure from environmentalists and issued permits for oil drilling in the Arctic.

Obama has set a goal of cutting overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions about 27 percent in the next decade, and new regulations are key to garnering a deal at international climate talks in Paris in December.

Despite the exemptions, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Tuesday that the rule "will do more harm than good." Murkowski chairs the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee.

"It's in everyone's interest to reduce methane leakage. That's one of the reasons why industry has taken steps to reduce methane emissions by 38 percent since 2005 while natural gas production has vastly increased," Murkowski said.

The Western Energy Alliance cited the same statistics, citing "industry innovation and voluntary measures" and saying the administration is just adding further red tape.

"Instead of more regulations that will only hurt production, the administration should follow the committee's lead and promote bipartisan initiatives that focus on improving our energy infrastructure which is an important step forward to reducing methane leakage," Murkowski said.

The EPA's regulations -- only for future wells -- are a mild-mannered step forward on methane emissions, compared to what many environmentalists want. The agency has focused much of its efforts on curbing emissions through voluntary programs, such as the "Methane Challenge Program" and "Natural Gas STAR."

McCabe said the proposed regulation is "based on best practices already in use by some companies and required in some states." The proposed rule wouldn't apply to existing wells -- mainly ones going forward.

Some environmentalists said Tuesday that the proposed rule should have included requirements for existing and abandoned wells. "The real solution to climate change is to leave fossil fuels in the ground and to clean up the abandoned wells that continue to poison our air," said Kate DeAngelis of Friends of the Earth.

A new study out Tuesday in the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology found that emissions from natural gas collection and processing facilities could be much greater than previously estimated by the EPA.

The EPA is expected to issue a final rule in about a year.