Industrial interests reflexively recoil when the White House announces new environmental regulations. But in the case of an impending effort to reduce methane emissions from gas and oil production, the government and the industry itself should be on roughly the same page, for many reasons.
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, about 30 times more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the equivalent of 127 million tons of carbon dioxide was emitted into the atmosphere as methane in 2012 from the production, processing, transmission and storage of natural gas. The equivalent of another 32 million tons of CO2 resulted from oil production and refining.
Natural gas is methane, for the most part. So allowing it to escape into the atmosphere is like letting money evaporate. The industry has an inherent economic incentive to hang on to as much methane as possible.
And it has made substantial progress in doing so through the implementation of new techniques and development of new technology. In complying with new federal standards for volatile compounds other than methane, which the EPA established in 2012, the industry also has reduced methane emissions.
The new regulatory initiative on methane, which has just gotten underway and will produce regulations by 2016, is based largely on the industry's progress. And the plan is to maintain state governments' involvement in regulation and enforcement.
Several industry groups nationwide, including in Pennsylvania, have established "best practices" for emission controls that have driven progress. But use of those practices is voluntary rather than a matter of regulatory compliance.
The Obama administration is on the mark in trying to make those practices uniform. The effort recognizes that domestic gas and oil production are long-term industries and it aims at standards based on available technology.
The industry deserves credit for developing best practices and some elements of the industry deserve credit for implementing them. It would best serve the industry and the public to make best practices mandatory by regulation.