The US Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new rules to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry — the first national methane limits on existing operations rather than just new facilities.

The agency said the rule would reduce methane emissions between 2023 to 2035 by 41 million tonnes, which is equivalent to more than all the carbon dioxide emitted from US cars and commercial aircraft in 2019.

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“By building on existing technologies and encouraging innovative new solutions, we are committed to a durable final rule that is anchored in science and the law, that protects communities living near oil and natural gas facilities, and that advances our nation’s climate goals under the Paris Agreement,” EPA administrator Michael S Regan said, noting the proposed rule will provide good discussion in Glasgow during COP26.

The proposed rule in the Clean Air Act would establish a monitoring programme for new and existing well sites and compressor stations, a zero-emissions standard for new and existing pneumatic controllers.

It would also introduce standards to eliminate venting of associated gas and require capture and sale of gas where possible, proposed performance standards for other new and existing sources of methane, including storage tanks, and a requirement that US states engage with local communities most affected by greenhouse gas emissions.

The EPA is seeking comment on additional sources of methane for the agency to consider in supplemental proposals to further reduce emissions, as well as suggestions for structuring a community monitoring programme to report large emission events.

The agency hopes to issue a final rule by the end of 2022.

Direct regulation preferred over fees

The American Petroleum Institute (API) issued a statement supporting direct regulation while it reviews the full proposal.

“We support the direct regulation of methane from new and existing sources and are committed to building on the progress we have achieved in reducing methane emissions,” API senior vice president for policy, economics and regulatory affairs Frank Macchiarola said.

“The EPA has released a sweeping proposal, and we look forward to reviewing it in its entirety. We will continue working with the agency to help shape a final rule that is effective, feasible and designed to encourage further innovation.”

BP America said: "We applaud the @EPA for developing new rules aimed at strengthening methane regulations. We’re taking action to drive down emissions by actively improving our methane detection and monitoring programme."

In September, the API and other business organisations denounced a methane fee in favour of direct regulation by the EPA.

The EPA estimates the changes to oil and gas prices from the rule will be just cents per barrel of oil or thousand cubic feet of gas.

UK supermajor BP said the proposed rule is a critical step toward helping the US reach net zero by 2050, part of its Paris Agreement commitments.

“As global leaders convene in Glasgow for COP26, the US should be commended for prioritising methane reductions,” BP America president Dave Lawler said.

“Regulating methane will help prevent leaks throughout the industry and protect the environment. That’s why BP supports the direct federal regulation of methane emissions from new and existing sources across the value chain."

Green groups want more

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) also supports the rule, saying it will cut methane emissions from the roughly one million wells in operation across the country and address methane flaring.

“Strong EPA standards to curb methane pollution are essential to protect the climate and our health. Millions of tonnes of this super-potent greenhouse gas are emitted from oil and gas operations across the country," said David Doniger, NRDC senior strategic director in the Climate & Clean Energy programme.

"This step is critical to meet President Biden’s pledge to cut America’s climate pollution in half by 2030.”

“This EPA action will also bolster the growing international efforts — led by the US and the European Union — to significantly reduce methane pollution at the climate talks in Glasgow.”

Other environmental groups, while supporting the proposed rule, insist more still must be done to address flaring and emissions from smaller wells.

“These rules are an important step that offers a major victory for nine million Americans living near active oil and gas sites. But the EPA still has more work to do to cut flaring and address emissions from the nation’s many smaller, leak-prone wells,” Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) president Fred Krupp said.

The EDF said so-called “marginal wells”, which are small, high-polluting wells, account for 80% of active oil and gas production sites and need to be addressed more specifically.

Environmental organisation the Sierra Club said the limits could be stronger, proposing a 65% reduction in methane pollution from new and existing oil and gas operations by 2025.

The EPA plans to make a supplemental proposal next year that will likely address public suggestions and from companies and comments.

“The EPA’s proposal is a move in the right direction, but the agency must not hesitate to strengthen these safeguards. Our families and communities deserve nothing less,” Kelly Sheehan, the Sierra Club's senior director of energy campaigns, said.