(Adds EPA comments, background)
By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON, Aug 18 (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed new standards to cut greenhouse gas emissions and smog-forming pollutants from oil and gas facilities, as part of President Barack Obama’s broader strategy to slash methane emissions in the energy sector over 10 years.
The proposal is an expansion of standards issued in 2012 and is expected to reduce the equivalent of 7.7 million to 9 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2025 at new and modified facilities, according to the EPA.
The release of the proposed standards came about two weeks after the EPA unveiled a sweeping rule that aims to cut national carbon emissions from the power sector to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
The proposal is meant to help achieve a broader Obama administration goal to cut methane emissions 40 percent to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025, as well as put the United States on track to meet its pledge to the United Nations climate change talks to cut overall greenhouse gas emissions up to 28 percent below 2005 levels by that same year.
“We can continue to accelerate the transition to a clean-energy economy by capturing fuel that would otherwise be wasted, while also preventing pollution that harms our climate and the health of our families and communities,” Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, told reporters.
But Tuesday’s proposal, as well as the 2012 standard, would only achieve up to a 30 percent reduction in methane emissions, McCabe said, adding that voluntary programs could help.
The standards would require oil and gas processing and transmission facilities to find and repair methane leaks, capture methane and smog-forming voluntary organic compounds (VOCs) from oil wells that were hydraulically fractured and limit emissions from pumps, compressors and other equipment.
Around 15,000 wells will be covered under the regulations, the EPA said.
Environmental groups said the announcement was a good first step but warned that the EPA was selling itself short by only targeting new sources of emissions.
“Meaningful progress in combating this potent climate pollutant will require an industrywide cleanup - from infrastructure new and old, nationwide. We are hopeful today’s announcement is just the beginning,” said Meleah Geertsma, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Existing sources will account for 90 percent of oil and gas industry emissions in 2018, and not regulating them will mean the United States will struggle to meet its climate talks pledge.
Drilling and fracking operations are the single largest source of U.S. methane emissions, which account for about 9 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Methane is the main component of natural gas, but when it is released into the atmosphere, it becomes a potent greenhouse gas.
The EPA has estimated the cost for companies to achieve the proposed standards will be $170 to $180 million in 2020 and $280 to $330 million in 2025, but that the climate change-related benefits would total $200 million to $210 million in 2020 and $460 million to $550 million in 2025.
Industry groups panned the new rules as an unnecessary expense since methane emissions from fracked natural gas wells have fallen nearly 79 percent since 2005.
“The unnecessary costs and added uncertainty resulting from the administration’s proposals could inflict more pain on the men and women who work in the oil and gas industry,” said Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association Of America. (Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Lisa Lambert and Paul Simao)