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New EPA Guidelines Limit Methane Release From Drilling

The rules are mostly voluntary, which disappoints environmental groups, but they should ratchet down the amount of leaked methane from new or modified oil and gas operations, which contributes to climate change.

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The Obama administration today announced plans to make oil and gas drilling companies clean up natural gas leaks. The current boom in drilling has led to lower oil and gas prices, but these wells sometimes leak methane, the main constituent of natural gas. Methane is also a powerful greenhouse gas that warms the atmosphere. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on what the government plans to do about that.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Leaks can come from lots of places - the wells themselves or gas compressors or valves that control the flow of gas on the drilling site. How much these leaks add up to is hard to pin down. The government estimates it's about 2 percent of what comes out of the ground. Janet McCabe heads the air pollution office at the Environmental Protection Agency. She said today the new rules will only apply to new drilling activity.

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JANET MCCABE: We're going to focus our rulemaking on the emissions sources that make the most sense to address now - new emission sources in areas of this industry where new investment and growth are occurring and where emissions will be increasing as a result.

JOYCE: The EPA's goal is to reduce emissions by 45 percent below what they were in 2012. Conrad Schneider of the environmental group Clean Air Task Force says that's good news. Its EPA's first direct limit on methane for oil and gas operations. But he notes that, for most existing operations, leak-plugging remains voluntary.

CONRAD SCHNEIDER: Failing to immediately regulate the existing oil and gas infrastructure nationwide really misses 90 percent of the problem. So we feel that the administration is proposing to find methane pollution with one hand tied behind its back.

JOYCE: Schneider points out that, across the country, most of the big leaks appear to be coming from a small minority of the drilling operators. And they may or may not be the ones to step up and clean up.

SCHNEIDER: So if the voluntary programs miss these few sites, it'll miss the lion's share of the problem.

JOYCE: Problem? What problem? Says Howard Feldman of the American Petroleum Institute.

HOWARD FELDMAN: Right now, omissions are coming down when production is going up.

JOYCE: By EPA's own estimate, methane emissions from oil and gas operations have dropped about 15 percent since 2005.

FELDMAN: The EPA is talking about putting another layer of regulation on top of that, and we just don't think it's necessary. The progress that we're making will continue without this extra layer of regulation.

JOYCE: Feldman notes that there are regulations already in place for existing natural gas wells that do have the effect of reducing methane leaks. And the Petroleum Institute has a set of good practices it distributes to operators to help them limit leaks.

FELDMAN: The vast majority of operations are actually very clean, and there are, unfortunately, some cases where some equipment, some of the operations, is not as clean right now. But industries incentivized to reduce those emissions because methane is what we sell.

JOYCE: The methane announcement is just that - an announcement. The proposed regulations are due out this summer for public comment. They would take effect in 2016. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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