U.S. sets rules on methane emissions, first nation to set fines for polluters

During COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), the US Environmental Protection Agency announced plans that could reduce an estimated 58 million tons of methane emissions over the next 15 years. More than 80 times more heat trapping than CO2 over a twenty year period, methane emissions continue to increase throughout the U.S., the world’s third largest emitter of this powerful greenhouse gas. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, today’s concentrations of methane in the atmosphere are higher than at any time in at least 800 000 years, and methane has contributed around 30% of observed global warming to date. The energy sector is responsible for around 40% of total methane emission. But now, as lead writer Michael Buchsbaum relates, for the first time, the U.S. federal government has set rules to regulate methane pollution from new and existing oil and gas facilities while preparing to set fines for violators.

Making new methane rules

Sharp cuts in methane emissions are among the most critical actions the United States can take in the short term to slow the rate of climate change.

Oil and natural gas operations are the nation’s largest industrial source of methane, a climate “super pollutant” that is many times more potent than carbon dioxide and is responsible for approximately one third of the warming from greenhouse gases occurring today.

Comparable to the emissions released by the entire US power sector in 2021, EPA’s final rule promises to use “innovative technologies and proven solutions” to prevent an estimated 58 million tons of methane emissions from 2024 to 2038, the equivalent of 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide – nearly as much as all the carbon dioxide emitted by the power sector in 2021.

Announced by EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan and President Biden’s National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi, the EPA’s new final rule on methane emissions could also sharply reduce methane and other harmful air pollutants from the oil and natural gas industry, including from hundreds of thousands of existing sources nationwide, promote the use of cutting-edge methane detection technologies.

The new rules also set a two-year phase out of routine gas flaring at new oil wells as well as leak detection, monitoring and repair to ensure all sites are subject to regular inspections, including low-producing and inactive wells.

The rule applies to owners and operators of sources of oil and gas production and extends to oil transmission pipelines or any other forms of transportation.

In 2030 alone, the expected reductions are equivalent to 130 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

The new emissions rules include standards to reduce methane and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from new, modified, and reconstructed sources. It also includes first-time emissions guidelines to help states develop plans to address existing sources’ methane emissions.

They also require best management practices to minimize or eliminate the venting of emissions during gas well liquids unloading events.

Enhanced scrutiny could come in the form of on-the-ground inspections, remote sensing inspections (including flyovers), information requests, and, where violations are identified, the initiation of formal enforcement actions.

EPA’s estimates show the final rule will prevent wasteful leaks and other releases of about 400 billion cubic feet of valuable fuel each year– enough to heat nearly 8 million American homes for the winter.

In addition, the final rule includes a Super Emitter Program that will utilize third-party expertise in remote sensing to detect large methane releases or leaks known as “super emitters,” which recent studies have indicated account for almost half of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.

The rule also clarifies how states can use their existing programs in plans for limiting methane emissions from existing sources and gives states two years to submit their plans for EPA approval.

“As the world gathers to tackle the climate crisis, the U.S. now has the most protective methane pollution limits on the books…it’s a signal to operators worldwide that clean-up time is here,” said Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund. 

Levying Penalties

This rule has been in the works since the Biden-Harris Administration announced the U.S. Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan at COP26 two years ago, and it is intended to work in tandem with the Inflation Reduction Act’s (IRA) methane fee and programs to address emissions from a variety of sources and support methane monitoring programs.

The IRA substantially increases support for the EPA’s existing efforts to address methane and also creates a new system of fees that will impose charges on owners of oil and gas infrastructure if methane emitted from that infrastructure exceeds specified thresholds.

Fees are levied by multiplying the number of metric tons of excess methane emissions by $900. This figure increases each year, from $1,200 in 2025 to $1,500 in 2026. This charge applies to many industries, including offshore and onshore petroleum and natural gas production; onshore natural gas processing and transmission compression; underground natural gas storage; liquefied natural gas storage, import, and export equipment; onshore petroleum and natural gas gathering and boosting; and onshore natural gas transmission pipelines.

To mitigate and monitor methane emissions, the IRA will appropriate $850 million to support efforts for reporting by owners and operators of facilities, as well as methane emissions monitoring, and the reduction of emissions from petroleum and gas systems.

The IRA targets methane emissions from petroleum and natural gas systems and marginal conventional wells by funding towards improving and deploying industrial equipment; permanently shutting in and plugging wells on federal lands; and supporting environmental restoration.

Financial benefits

EPA estimates that the final rule will yield $97 to $98 billion dollars from 2024-2038 ($2019), or $7.3 to $7.6 billion a year, after taking into account the costs of compliance and savings from recovered natural gas.

Sales of that “recovered” natural gas – that is, gas saved from being vented and wasted is valued at $7.4 to $13 billion from 2024-2038 ($2019), or an average, according to the EPA of $820 to $980 million a year.

Never letting up the pressure

The pressure to control methane has long been a grassroots effort.

“Methane Hunters” — campaigners armed with sophisticated Optical Gas Imaging cameras — began doing field observations to document the extent of the methane pollution happening in many fracking fields.

Earthworks Energy Field team members started taking cameras into oil and gas fields in 2014 to make oil and gas methane and health-hazardous air pollution visible in a way that couldn’t otherwise be seen with the naked eye.

Armed with 5 optical gas imaging cameras, Earthworks will continue to play a foundational role during the implementation and enforcement process of the IRA-funded methane rules.

In some key oil and gas producing states, like Texas where methane is not considered a greenhouse gas and carbon dioxide is barely regulated, Earthworks and other campaigners will have to also act to ensure that legislators and governors don’t attempt to weaken or ignore new methane protections.

Yet as Earthworks reminds in a blog post, “even the strongest methane rules will not be enough to prevent climate catastrophe.”


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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