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Economy

Biden’s EPA Just Enacted Its Strongest Methane Rules Yet

The new regulation covers existing U.S. oil and gas wells as well as new ones.

President Biden.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

One of the first things Joe Biden did on the day he was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States was issue an executive order on the climate crisis. In it, he directed the Environmental Protection Agency to set new standards for emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane from the oil and gas industry. Nearly three years later, those regulations have been finalized.

This is the first time the U.S. will try to rein in methane leaking from drilling sites and other infrastructure that already exist, in addition to regulating new oil and gas projects.

The EPA says the rules will prevent the equivalent of 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted between 2024 and 2038, almost as much as was emitted by all power plants in the country in 2021. They will also reduce emissions of other health-harming air pollutants including benzene, which can exacerbate respiratory problems and increase cancer risk. The total benefits created by the new limits, the administration estimates, will reach $98 billion by 2038.

“The U.S. now has the most protective methane pollution limits on the books,” said Fredd Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, which has played a major role in exposing the dangers of methane.

Tackling methane emissions is often called the fastest way to slow global warming. Methane is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas — some 80 times more powerful at warming the planet than carbon dioxide, in the near term. Scientists estimate it is responsible for at least 25% of the human-caused warming we are experiencing today. It leaks into the atmosphere from oil and gas infrastructure, coal mines, landfills, wetlands, and farms.

But then, within a decade, it begins to break down. If we stopped emitting methane tomorrow, its effect on global temperatures would quickly fade.

In particular, Krupp applauded EPA for addressing two of the largest sources of methane from the oil and gas system. The rules call for regular monitoring for leaks at all well sites, and also require well operators to phase out the use of polluting pneumatic controllers. These are devices that help move gas through pipelines and other infrastructure, but are, in fact, designed to leak some of it out.

The rules also create a somewhat unusual program that empowers third parties to play sheriff. Satellite companies such as Kayrros and nonprofits like EDF, which have made a name for themselves detecting especially large “super-emitters,” can register with the EPA to become watchdogs and report their findings to the agency. When super-emitters are reported, the EPA will require the implicated company to investigate, report back, and “take appropriate corrective action,” explained Tomas Carbonell, an official in the EPA’s office of air and radiation.

Another major source of methane emissions occurs when oil companies “flare,” or burn off the gas that comes up during extraction. That makes it less harmful to the environment, but flares are notoriously inefficient, and a lot of methane ends up getting released anyway.

Not to mention that flaring wastes a valuable product, which could be captured and used for energy.

Operators of new wells will have to stop flaring methane within two years; however, EPA officials told reporters on Friday that they will permit the practice at existing wells “that do not emit significant amounts of emissions from flaring, and where the costs of avoiding flaring would be significant relative to the benefits, in terms of emission reductions.”

It appears the Biden administration has gotten buy-in from at least some major industry players. An EPA press release quoted Orlando Alvarez, the president of bp America, who said the company “welcomes” the rule. In a press call with reporters, EPA officials emphasized that they received more than 1 million public comments throughout the process, and made several adjustments to accommodate feedback from the industry — including the two-year delay on the flaring rules.

Operators may also have up to two years before regulations kick in for existing wells, as the EPA has allowed states extra time to develop plans for enforcing them. In the meantime, bad actors could still face consequences. A provision in the Inflation Reduction Act directs EPA to charge polluters $900 per metric ton of methane they release in 2024. The fee increases to $1,200 in 2025 emissions. It will stay in effect until the EPA regulations kick in. “It’s a sort of transition that gets us from today to when these rules are in effect,” said Carbonell.

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Emily Pontecorvo profile image

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.

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