The White House announced a wide-ranging plan Friday aimed at cutting methane emissions from oil and gas drilling, landfills and other sources.
The plan, part of President Obama's strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming, comes amid concerns about increased methane emissions resulting from an ongoing boom in drilling for oil and natural gas.
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas released by landfills, cattle and leaks from oil and gas production. Methane is 21 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, the most abundant global warming gas, although it doesn't stay in the air as long.
Experts say methane leaks can be controlled by fixes such as better gaskets, maintenance and monitoring. Such fixes are also thought to be cost-effective, since the industry ends up with more product to sell.
In the booming Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana, huge amounts of methane and other gases are burned off, or flared, during oil production, wasting millions of dollars and contributing to air pollution.
The White House said the Environmental Protection Agency will study how methane is released during oil and gas drilling and decide by the end of the year whether to develop new regulations for methane emissions. If imposed, the regulations would be completed by the end of 2016, just before Obama leaves office.
The White House also said the Interior Department will propose updated standards to reduce venting and flaring of methane from oil and gas production on public lands. Next month, the Bureau of Land Management will begin a rule-making process to require the capture and sale of methane waste produced by coal mines on lands leased by the federal government.
This summer, the EPA will propose updated standards to reduce methane from new landfills and consider whether to impose new standards for existing landfills.
In June, the Agriculture Department and other agencies will release a strategy for voluntary steps to reduce methane emissions from cattle, with the goal of cutting dairy sector greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020.
Environmental groups praised the White House plan, although noted that many details have yet to be completed.
"The important thing is they charted a specific pathway forward, which we think should lead and will lead to additional standards for (reducing) methane leakage," said David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
Industry groups also welcome the new plan, which largely continues efforts already underway.
"We all share the goal of a safe, resilient, clean energy infrastructure and natural gas utilities are working with state regulators and key stakeholders to do our part," said Dave McCurdy, president and CEO of the American Gas Association, which represents more than 200 local energy companies.
"Smart, cost-effective investments in system modernization can continue, and accelerate, the trend in decreasing natural gas emissions," McCurdy said.
The White House plan comes amid conflicting estimates about how much methane is produced by oil and gas production.
The EPA said in a report last spring said that tighter pollution controls instituted by the oil and gas industry resulted in an average annual decrease of 41.6 million metric tons of methane emissions from 1990 through 2010, or more than 850 million metric tons overall. The figure is about a 20 percent reduction from previous estimates.
A University of Texas study published in September largely agreed with those findings, but another study published in November said government methane estimates are off by as much as 50 percent below actual methane emissions.
The debate over methane emissions comes as oil and gas drilling has expanded across the country amid improvements in drilling techniques that have allowed energy companies access to previously untapped areas. Much of the increase is due to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a drilling process that injects sand, water and chemicals to break apart rock and free the gas inside. Improved technology has spurred a nationwide drilling boom but also has raised widespread concerns that fracking could lead to groundwater contamination and even earthquakes.