US President Joe Biden's administration has moved to tighten regulations on methane emissions from domestic oil and gas operations to help bring the sector in line with the nation's climate targets.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced a proposal Friday that would update its existing Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan covering the venting and flaring of methane from oil and gas operations in the US, including well plugging and abandonment.

The EPA aims to cut methane from operations 87% by 2030, against 2005 emission levels.

The oil and gas sector provides “the fastest and deepest methane emissions reductions opportunities”, the US government said, adding that the captured fuel could help alleviate global gas shortages in the near term.

Methane does not remain in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide but is much more destructive. An estimated 260 billion cubic metres per year are currently flared or vented.

Broader application

The rule change would implement leak-monitoring requirements for wells of all sizes, rather than only for large sites as previously proposed.

“All well sites, regardless of their size, will be regularly monitored and checked for leaks,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a press conference at the COP27 meeting in Egypt.

Research carried out by the US Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory and the Environmental Defense Fund showed that more than half of the methane emitted from US wells comes from the more than 700,000 sites that produce less than 15 barrels per day, Reuters reported.

The EPA proposal includes a “super-emitter response programme” that would require operators to respond in a timely manner to third-party reports of high-volume leaks.

The agency has earmarked $1.55 billion in financial and technical assistance as part of the Inflation Reduction Act to monitor and reduce oil and gas methane emissions, including $700 million to support pollution-reduction activities at marginal conventional wells and $20 million to support emissions monitoring.

The proposal requires higher safety standards for gas pipelines, including automatic shut-off valve requirements and lower corrosion thresholds.

Applicable to some 400,000 miles of previously unregulated pipelines, this would lead to a high reduction of leaks as well as pipe integrity, EPA said.

Additionally, the plan includes plugging non-producing, abandoned and orphaned well. The US has about 2.7 million abandoned oil wells and 600,000 abandoned gas wells, 40% of which remain unplugged and may be an ongoing source of methane emissions, the White House said.

“All orphaned and unplugged wells will be properly closed when no longer in use – meaning they will be monitored until they are no longer in use,” Regan said.

The EPA estimates that unplugged, non-producing and orphaned wells emitted 275,000 tonnes of methane in 2020. It is deploying $5 billion under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to plug these sites.

Commenting on the proposed regulations, Rachel Cleetus, policy director and lead economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said: “We urgently need better tracking of methane emissions and stronger rules to reduce these emissions, including addressing leakage throughout the production, supply, storage and transportation chain as well as from routine flaring.”

Darin Shroeder, attorney for the Clean Air Task Force, said these are “much-needed improvements to require routine monitoring at all well sites regardless of production levels”.

The oil and gas sector is the largest industrial source of methane emissions in the country, accounting for about one-third of total US methane emissions.

The EPA said the proposal, which is open for comment until February 2023, will deliver net climate benefits of about $3.1 billion to $3.2 billion per year through 2025, taking into account recovered gas and reduced climate impact.

President Joe Biden arrived at the UN climate summit in Egypt on Friday.

“Cutting methane by at least 30% by 2030 can be our best chance to keep in reach of the 1.5C target," Biden told his COP27 audience.

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