U.S. May Force Drillers to Cut Methane Leaks, EPA Chief Says

Sep 02, 2014 2:09 pm ET

Sept. 2 (Bloomberg) -- The Environmental Protection Agency is considering rules that would force oil and gas producers to cut methane emissions, its chief said, stepping up efforts to curb the most potent greenhouse gas linked to climate change.

Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator, told investors at a New York forum today the agency will decide this year whether to issue regulations mandating emission cuts, or to rely only on voluntary steps.

“We are looking at what are the most cost-effective regulatory and-or voluntary efforts that can take a chunk out of methane in the system,” McCarthy said. “It’s not just for climate, but for air quality” reasons, she said.

Methane is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and climate advocates have said that without curbs on emissions from the oil and gas industry, President Barack Obama will fall short of his goal to cut climate-change emissions. The administration’s plan to cut methane, issued in March, said the EPA would decide whether to regulate the industry. Rules, if issued, would take effect in 2016, the government said.

McCarthy said two sections of the Clean Air Act could be used to regulate methane. Because production is causing dangerously high ozone levels in some areas where hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is booming, “we recognize that this is a traditional air quality problem,” she said.

The issue has gained attention as fracking fuels a boom in gas and oil production in states such as North Dakota, Texas and Pennsylvania, leading to some air-quality woes. Critics of fracking, in which water, sand and chemicals are shot underground to free gas or oil trapped in rock, say methane leaks undercut the climate benefits of using natural gas.

When it’s burned to produce electricity, natural gas emits about half the carbon dioxide, the main gas tied to global warming, as coal. If too much methane escapes during production and transport, that environmental benefit is diminished or lost.