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Biden Administration Moves to Limit Methane, a Potent Greenhouse Gas

By Lisa Friedman

GLASGOW — The Biden administration planned to announce on Tuesday that it would heavily regulate methane, a potent greenhouse gas that spews from oil and natural gas operations and can warm the atmosphere 80 times as fast as carbon dioxide in the short term.

For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency intends to limit the methane coming from roughly one million existing oil and gas rigs across the United States. The federal government previously had rules that aimed to prevent methane leaks from oil and gas wells built since 2015, but they were rescinded by the Trump administration. Mr. Biden intends to restore and strengthen them, administration aides said.

Mr. Biden is in Glasgow this week for a United Nations climate summit, where he is trying to persuade other countries to reduce emissions from fossil fuels that are heating the planet to dangerous levels.

The methane announcement comes as Mr. Biden faces intense pressure both internationally and at home to show that the United States, the nation that has pumped the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, is serious about mitigating climate change.

Mr. Biden has set an aggressive target of cutting the emissions produced by the United States this decade about 50 percent below 2005 levels, but legislation to help him meet that goal is stalled in Congress. That leaves the administration to rely on regulations and other executive action.

The White House on Tuesday is also set to release other new climate initiatives, including a plan to protect tropical forests and a push to speed up clean technology, according to senior administration officials who briefed journalists on Monday.

The centerpiece, however, will be the proposed regulation on methane. On Monday, in a speech to world leaders in Glasgow, Mr. Biden said that 70 countries had joined a coalition led by the United States and European Union to cut global methane levels at least 30 percent by 2030.

“I encourage every nation to sign on,” Mr. Biden said, calling it the “single most effective strategy we have to slow global warming in the near term.”

Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, and it’s responsible for more than a quarter of the warming the planet is currently experiencing. It dissipates from the atmosphere faster than carbon dioxide but is more powerful at heating the atmosphere in the short run.

An odorless, colorless, flammable gas, methane is produced by landfills, agriculture, livestock and oil and gas drilling. It is sometimes intentionally burned or vented into the atmosphere during gas production.

As concentrations of methane in the atmosphere have increased, environmentalists have grown increasingly concerned about its role in climate change.

According to the E.P.A., the regulation, once finalized, will reduce 41 million tons of methane emissions from 2023 to 2035, the equivalent of 920 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That is more than the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from all U.S. passenger cars and commercial aircraft in 2019, the agency said.

President Biden at the opening session of the COP26 summit on Monday. Mr. Biden said that 70 countries had joined a coalition to cut methane levels 30 percent by 2030.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

“With this historic action, E.P.A. is addressing existing sources from the oil and natural gas industry nationwide, in addition to updating rules for new sources, to ensure robust and lasting cuts in pollution across the country,” the agency’s administrator, Michael S. Regan, said in a statement.

But Republicans in Congress said Mr. Biden’s promises in Glasgow would hurt Americans at home. “The president wants to kill abundant and affordable U.S. energy sources like oil, natural gas and coal that Americans depend on,” Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, said in a statement. He called the White House plans “a recipe for disaster” that would lead to a shortage of affordable energy.

The oil and gas industry is divided over the methane plan.

Karen Harbert, president of the American Gas Association, which represents some of the country’s largest producers, said her group supported new federal regulations, though she noted she had not seen the details.

Ms. Harbert noted that methane emissions from natural gas had declined 73 percent since 1990. But, she said, “we recognize we need to button up and get to that last percentage.” She called regulation “the best possible approach” to creating standard rules across the industry.

Small oil and gas producers, however, are worried that the new rules will create onerous burdens that will put them out of business.

The proposed regulations could take time to put in place, are likely to face legal challenges and could be reversed by a future administration, observers say.

“As a president tries to use unilateral executive powers, there are immediately a set of hurdles,” said Barry Rabe, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Michigan. “It’s not going to be an easy transition.”

In addition to reducing greenhouse gases, regulating methane will protect public health, E.P.A. officials said.

When methane is released into the atmosphere, it is frequently accompanied by hazardous chemicals like benzene and hydrogen sulfide. Exposure to those pollutants has been linked to serious health problems including asthma and cancer.

Sue Franklin knows the effects firsthand. She and her husband, Jim, used to live in the West Texas town of Verhalen, where oil and gas drilling operations took off around 2014.

Gases leaked from two new wells and gave the couple headaches, nosebleeds and asthma attacks.

The Franklins eventually moved about 40 miles away, but Ms. Franklin, 70, said she feared she would have respiratory problems for the rest of her life.

“It’s never going to get better; the damage has been done,” Ms. Franklin said when she and her husband traveled to Washington, D.C., to protest new fossil fuel projects. Ms. Franklin said she thought new regulations governing oil and gas wells would help, but only up to a point.

“We were the lucky ones,” she said. “We got out. Other people still live with this. I’d like to see them actually shut down.”

The oil and gas industry is united against a separate effort in Congress to impose a fee on methane leaks from oil and gas wells as part of a broader budget bill.

The methane fee is designed both to raise revenue and to lower greenhouse pollution. Experts said that the double-pronged approach was necessary to shut down methane emissions.

The fee would apply to the largest oil and gas companies, those that emit more than 25,000 tons of greenhouse gases each year. Those companies would pay $900 per ton of leaked methane starting in 2024, ramping up to $1,500 per ton from 2026 through 2030.

Oil and gas producers are lobbying hard to remove the methane fee from the legislation that is pending on Capitol Hill.

Anne Bradbury, chief executive of the American Exploration and Production Council, which represents oil and gas companies, said: “This new, poorly constructed natural gas tax, on top of regulatory costs being imposed through compliance with forthcoming E.P.A. methane rules, would be additional costs and punitive taxes that would disadvantage American producers, increase Americans’ energy costs and cause 90,000 jobs lost across the country.”

Methane regulations have a fractured history in Washington.

President Barack Obama first proposed rules to reduce methane from new and modified gas wells in 2016, and finalized them on his way out of office. Republicans tried but failed to kill them in 2017 by using an obscure law known as the Congressional Review Act, which allows lawmakers to overturn rules within 60 legislative days after they are finalized.

The Interior Department and the E.P.A. repealed Mr. Obama’s methane regulations as President Donald J. Trump was leaving office.

In April, Democrats tried their hand at deploying the Congressional Review Act and were successful, voting to kill Mr. Trump’s rollback.

According to the E.P.A., the proposed rule will create a monitoring program under which companies will be required to find and fix methane leaks, often called “fugitive emissions,” at new and existing well sites and compressor stations.

Mark Brownstein, a senior vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund, said the technology to reduce methane emissions exists. Operators can install vapor recovery systems in storage tanks, make sure pressure relief valves don’t get stuck open and replace leaking pipes.

“This is not about rocket science,” Mr. Brownstein said. “This is auto mechanics.”

Coral Davenport contributed reporting.

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