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U.S. gets tough on methane with new proposals on oil and gas

A new proposal could impose fees on drillers for their methane emissions.

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A proposal from U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland seeks to cap methane emissions of methane from drilling activity on public and tribal lands. File photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI
A proposal from U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland seeks to cap methane emissions of methane from drilling activity on public and tribal lands. File photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI | License Photo

Nov. 29 (UPI) -- A draft ruling on methane emissions from oil and gas installations on public and tribal lands should be seen as low-hanging fruit in the effort to abate harmful emissions, the U.S. Interior Department said.

The department put forward proposed rules that would address methane that can escape from drilling activities. Allowing methane to escape, either by venting or flaring -- where a producer simply burns it off -- results in the release of approximately 44.2 billion cubic feet of the greenhouse gas each year.

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If captured, that would be enough to power 675,000 average homes, according to federal estimates. Methane is a main ingredient in the natural gas that drives power plants, but it's also a potent greenhouse gas with far more warming potential than carbon dioxide.

Tracy Stone-Manning, the director of the Bureau of Land Management, part of the Interior Department, said addressing waste could be an easy way to tackle lingering climate concerns.

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"This draft rule is a common-sense, environmentally responsible solution as we address the damage that wasted natural gas causes," she said in a late Monday statement.

Methane emissions are a growing concern. Climate TRACE, a coalition founded by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore to monitor global emissions, found that more than half of the 50 largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions are associated with oil and natural gas fields and those emissions are vastly under-reported.

The U.S. space agency NASA, meanwhile, has detected a 2-mile plume of methane stretching across New Mexico that's the result of exploration and production activity in the Permian basin, the largest inland source of crude oil in the country.

RELATED WMO report: Greenhouse gas emissions reached record highs in 2021

The Interior Department's proposal would call on oil and gas producers to use "low-bleed" pumps and other equipment, where feasible, to cut emissions from that source. A leak detection program, meanwhile, would be necessary for all federal and tribal land operations.

Elsewhere, drilling applicants would need to develop waste management plans to detail what's available in current pipeline capacity for so-called associated gas, plans that could determine whether or not the government signs off on drilling permits. And if drillers continue to release methane beyond certain limits, it could trigger a fee that could lead to nearly $40 million per year in royalties.

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"This proposed rule will bring our regulations in line with technological advances that industry has made in the decades since the BLM's rules were first put in place, while providing a fair return to taxpayers," Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said.

RELATED NASA satellites identify more than 50 methane 'super emitters'

The proposal follows similar efforts from the Environmental Protection Agency to tighten its own rules on methane emissions from oil and gas drillers.

Jon Goldstein, the senior director of legislative affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, told CNBC the proposal from the Interior Department doesn't go far enough.

"The Biden administration and Secretary Haaland must go further by setting clear requirements to eliminate waste caused by venting and flaring to safeguard public resources while protecting taxpayers and our energy security," he said.

The government offered the proposal up for a 60-day comment period. A final proposal is expected in 2023.

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