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In yet another exercise of climate spin over substance, on March 27, the White House released its “Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions”.  Regulating methane is an important part of the fight against climate change.  It’s much more damaging than CO2 in the short run, and there’s a ready market for any gas that can be recovered.

However, methane emissions are a particularly difficult issue because of the very large number of very small sources: cows, pipes, wells, coal mines, etc.  That said, the Strategy was long on exhortations and short on actually reducing emissions; the fact that the word “voluntary” appears 15 times in a 14-page document sums it up.  Here is what the Strategy proposes for the four major sources of U.S. methane emissions:

Agriculture:  Although agricultural emissions are the largest source of methane, and some agricultural sources can be effectively controlled (hog waste lagoons, confined animal operations), “This strategy addresses emissions from agriculture exclusively through voluntary actions, not through regulations.” As the industrial targets of this regulation (such as they are) will no doubt note, this is a perfect example of one of the eternal truths of Washington: Ag always wins.

Landfills: This summer, EPA will put out “a proposed update to its current standards” for new municipal landfills, and an ANPRM (“Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking”) for existing ones.  (For those unfamiliar with ANPRMs, they are the classic agency tactic designed help it figure out what to do when it is out of ideas, so do not expect any near term action on existing landfills.)  As for new landfills, the “proposed update to current standards” is somewhat disingenuous, as the current standards regulate only emissions of non-methane organic compounds.  Not eager to separately regulate methane as a greenhouse gas, EPA will thus try to get at methane by tightening those standards, which were created to deal with ozone precursors.

Coal mines: EPA will put out another ANPRM concerning methane emission standards for coal and other mines . . . on federal land.  Not only is this an ANPRM, but because you can’t practically capture methane from surface mining, any such eventual emission standards would only apply to underground coal mining on federal lands. Most underground mines are already subject to routine degasification on safety grounds, which is believed to remove 50-60% of the gas in place. The rest is normally vented.  Since 88% of coal produced on federal lands comes just from Powder River Basin surface mines (CRS: U.S. and World Coal Production, Federal Taxes, and Incentives, March 2013, p. 13), these standards would, at best, apply to a tiny fraction of U.S. coal mining.  The Strategy also says nothing about methane from the almost 500,000 abandoned coal mines in the U.S.; methane capture has been installed at some of these, but presumably no one would object to expanding regulation of those emissions.

Oil & Gas production: “This fall, the EPA will determine what if any regulatory authorities, including setting standards under section 111 of the Clean Air Act or issuing Control Techniques Guidelines under section 182 of the Act, the agency will apply to emissions from these sources.”  Although recently EPA formally rejected regulating methane from O&G production under section 111, this refers to the environmental community’s petition for reconsideration of this decision and their pressuring the White House to take action.  The reference to section 182 is to an ozone non-attainment provision that would only apply to that tiny fraction of O&G facilities located in ozone non-attainment areas. The main objective is presumably to simultaneously avoid creating PR issues with tens of thousands of remote rural “mom and pop” well owners, and to minimize the metering problems which were part of the reason for abandoning earlier regulatory efforts. (It also incidentally creates a new reason for industry to oppose the forthcoming tightening of ozone standards.)

In addition, BLM will issue a proposed rule as to venting/flaring of methane on federal lands, but again, only about 5% and 12% of U.S. oil production and gas production, respectively, is on federal land.  (CRS: U.S. Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production in Federal and Non-Federal Areas, March 2013, pp. 2, 4.) Largely for permitting reasons, production on Federal land has lagged dramatically in the recent boom, and this will be one more incentive to go elsewhere.

Finally, we note that the Strategy devotes considerable space to assisting efforts to improve measurement of methane sources and emissions, which is certainly belated, and also ironic when the Strategy continues to use the 100-year global warming potential (GWP) values from the IPCC’s Second Assessment Report “as required by international reporting standards.”  P. 4, n. 1.  Not only is there is no requirement to apply those “international reporting standards” to anything except international reporting, for those very reporting purposes the Second Assessment Report’s methane GWP value of 21 has been replaced by the Fourth Assessment value of 25 as of January 1, 2015.  78 FR 71912.

In defense of the White House effort, they are clearly trying to figure out how they can politically get a regulation on the books that can be improved down the road. Avoiding the potential firestorm of hard cases inherent in regulating so many sources requires compromises that many in the environmental movement won’t like. Our view is that they may have started too timidly, made a serious mistake in excluding agriculture, and will ultimately find that the final rules – which will include even more compromises – risk having little real benefit.