Emission management

Slate of New Federal Rules Aim To Reduce US Oil and Gas Industry Methane Emissions by 75%

The White House is taking a governmentwide approach to reducing emissions in the oil and gas industry.

An aerial infrared image shows a leaking gas line in a California oil field in 2020. The increased use of methane-detection technology has helped build the case for stiffer regulations on preventing and repairing leaks.
Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

A set of new proposals from the White House will greatly enhance the US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) authority to regulate methane emissions from most of the nation's oil and gas fields. The US government estimates that its domestic oil and gas sector represents 30% of the nation’s total methane emissions.

The new actions aim to reduce the industry’s methane emissions by 75%. The EPA said that amounts to preventing 41 million tons of methane emissions between 2023 and 2035; equal to about 920 million metric tons of CO2. The agency also expects that the release of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, would be reduced by 12 million tons.

  • Proposed EPA rules would “update and strengthen” existing rules for new oil and gas projects and promote the use of cost-effective technologies to tamp down on air pollutants.
  • For the first time ever, new guidelines for state regulators will be drafted to abate emissions from existing oil and gas facilities, which must comply with “rigorous leak detection and repair” at wellsites and gas compressor stations. Existing facilities will also face pressure to eliminate gas venting and replace pneumatic controllers with new technologies.
  • Other new features include regulating well liquids unloading, methane-venting pneumatic controllers, and associated gas from oil wells.
  • Next year, the EPA plans to introduce additional rules on currently unregulated activities that include abandoned and unplugged wells, pipeline pigging, and tanker truck loading.

The methane emissions reduction action plan was announced while US President Joe Biden is attending the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, otherwise known as COP26, that began this week in Glasgow, Scotland.

The action plan also follows Biden’s decision in September to join the European Union in a pledge to reduce global methane emissions by 30% from 2020 baselines by 2030. At COP26, it was announced that more than 90 countries, including half of the top 30 methane emitters, have joined the pledge.

Other US Agencies Making Rule Changes

The US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) will be issuing new rules as well for public lands and federal offshore areas. The big focus for the sister bureaus will be on reducing methane venting and flaring along with ensuring wells are properly plugged and abandoned to prevent long-term leakage.

The Biden administration is also pushing for $4.7 billion, to be overseen by the BLM, to plug many of the almost 2 million unplugged oil and gas wells spread across the country. The EPA estimates these abandoned and, in many cases, orphaned assets release up to 263,000 metric tons of methane in 2019. The funding is dependent on the US Congress passing a major infrastructure package.

The US Department of Transportation, which oversees pipelines, underground storage sites, and liquified natural gas (LNG) facilities, is set to introduce three new rules next year.

One will place new safety requirements on 400,000 miles of pipeline not covered under current rules. The federal agency will also require new and replaced large-diameter pipelines to use rupture-mitigation valves or similar technologies. Lastly, a beefed-up integrity management and operational rule will cover 300,000 miles of natural gas transmission lines to reduce emissions in heavily populated areas.

LNG operators will be issued new safety standards next year to prevent “low probability/high consequence” accidents that result in large methane releases.

Aside from the oil and gas industry, other newly proposed rules and incentives will attempt to tamp down emissions from coal mines, power generation facilities, landfills, agricultural activities, and gas-heated commercial and residential buildings.

Reducing Methane, Adding Jobs?

The White House said its new proposals have the potential to create tens of thousands of jobs in the US. Additionally, the executive branch of the US government noted that more than 200 US companies make technologies or provide services aimed at leak detection and repair. Workers in the methane mitigation sector earn $31/hour on average, which is 60% higher than the overall US average hourly pay, according to government figures.

The American Petroleum Institute (API), the industry's chief trade association and lobbying body, responded with cautious optimism to the new proposals in a statement on 2 November.

“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. 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," Frank Macchiarola, the senior vice president for policy, economics, and regulatory affairs, said in the statement.