WASHINGTON In its latest move to combat climate change, the Obama administration on Friday said it will overhaul 30-year-old regulations for oil and gas operations on public and tribal lands to limit the "wasteful release" of natural gas and curb methane emissions.
The proposal by the Interior department's Bureau of Land Management would require oil and gas producers to use currently available technology to limit flaring at oil wells on federal land. It would also require operators to regularly check for natural gas leaks and replace outdated equipment that allows large quantities of gas and methane to escape into the air.
The overhaul would also clarify when oil and gas companies need to pay royalties on flared natural gas.
"These updated regulations, which would be phased in over several years ... would not only get more of our nation’s natural gas into pipelines and delivered to market but also reduce pollution and cut greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to climate change," Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Janice Schneider said.
The proposal comes as a major methane leak from a natural gas storage site near Los Angeles has forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes for months and put a spotlight on emissions oversight. The BLM overhaul would only affect federal land.
The overhaul would reduce flaring by up 60 percent and venting by up to 46 percent compared to 2013 rates.
The BLM estimates that it would prevent the loss of up to 56 billion cubic feet of gas a year through venting, flaring or leaks, which could supply around 760,000 households annually.
The agency said it would also avoid methane emissions that would be equivalent to up to 4.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year.
Methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide. Though it only lasts in the atmosphere for 20 years, methane is 84 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat, and environmental groups have pressed the administration for tighter restrictions on leaks.
Energy industry groups and some Republican lawmakers blasted the rule, announced as Washington prepares for a major blizzard, arguing that it deprives states of needed revenue and duplicates voluntary efforts by companies to reduce waste.
"Another duplicative rule at a time when methane emissions are already falling and on top of an onslaught of other new BLM and EPA regulations could drive more energy production off federal lands," said Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations at the American Petroleum Institute.
The overhaul forms part of the broader Obama administration strategy announced last January to reduce oil and gas sector methane emissions by up to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025.
The strategy includes an Environmental Protection Agency proposal announced in August targeting methane emissions from new or modified oil and gas processing and transmission facilities and wells.
It comes on the heels of a BLM announcement last week that it will freeze new leases for coal production on public land.
(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Susan Heavey and Meredith Mazzilli)