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In the last year of his presidency, Barack Obama appears determined to leave a legacy of limiting greenhouse gases believed to cause climate change, first by reducing the industrial burning of coal, and next by limiting the emission of methane from oil and gas fields on federal lands.
On Friday the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management proposed limits on flaring, the practice of burning off excess methane produced in drilling for oil and gas, and a requirement that energy companies conduct periodic inspections for methane leaks.
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The rules, which would go into effect by the end of the year after public hearings on their implementation, would apply only to drilling on federally owned lands, which host drilling for only 5 percent of the country’s oil supply and 11 percent of its gas.
During the growth of U.S. energy production over the past decade, due in large part to new drilling techniques such as hydraulic fracturing, companies drilling in the United States have relied on flaring or simply allowing excess methane to escape into the atmosphere if there’s no way to capture the gas. The new rules would require drillers to capture methane and make it available as fuel.
But the Interior Department says it would go a long way to achieving Obama’s goal of reducing U.S. methane emissions by between 40 percent and 45 percent below their levels in 2012 by 2025. The bad news is that, if approved, they would cost the domestic energy industry between $125 million and $161 million a year.
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The White House says methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide in warming the Earth’s atmosphere, but methane emissions from oil and gas production dropped about 15 percent between 2005 and 2012, according to administration data. Still, Washington estimates these emissions will rise by 25 percent by 2025 unless it acts to limit them.
“[W]e should be using our nation’s natural gas to power our economy, not wasting it by venting and flaring it into the atmosphere,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement. “We need to … cut down on harmful methane emissions and use this captured natural gas to generate power and provide a return to taxpayers, tribes and states for this public resource.”
Environmental groups applauded the move. “[T]oday’s action from the Bureau of Land Management represents a positive step towards reining in this industry’s misuse of our public lands,” said Michael Brune, president of the Sierra Club.
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Republicans in Congress rejected the move. One, Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement that it would be too expensive and “further dissuade and expel [energy] producers from federal land.”
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said the plan would hurt individual Americans. “As the markets drop, and America’s saving and retirement portfolios suffer, it’s astonishing that this president would seek to further cripple America’s energy industry,” he said. “The American people’s welfare should not have to compete with the president’s desire to cement his climate legacy.”
In fact, even if the rules survive the public-comment hearings, there’s a chance they’ll never get a chance to go into effect. They’re not due to be implemented until the end of December, only weeks before Obama leaves office. If he’s succeeded by a Republican, the new president may rescind them.
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com:
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com