Biden Interior rule would limit methane leaks, gas flaring from public lands drilling

Environment

Flames from a flaring pit near a well in the Bakken Oil Field. The primary component of natural gas is methane, which is odorless when it comes directly out of the gas well. In addition to methane, natural gas typically contains other hydrocarbons such as ethane, propane, butane, and pentanes.
Orjan F. Ellingvag | Corbis News | Getty Images

The Interior Department has proposed rules to reduce methane leaks from oil and gas drilling on public lands, in the Biden administration’s latest move to aggressively tackle emissions of the climate-warming greenhouse gas.

The rules by the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management would impose strict monthly time and volume limits on flaring, the process of burning excess natural gas at a well, and require payment for flaring that exceeds those limits.

Global methane emissions are the second-biggest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide and come primarily from oil and gas extraction, landfills and wastewater and livestock farming. Methane is a key component of natural gas and is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide, but doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere before it breaks down. Scientists have argued that limiting methane is necessary to avoid the worst consequences of global warming. 

The proposal would also require oil and gas producers to develop waste minimization plans demonstrating the capacity of available pipeline infrastructure for anticipated gas production. The BLM could delay action on or ultimately deny a permit to drill to avoid excessive flaring of gas, an activity it said has significantly increased over the last few decades.

“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 in a statement on Monday.

A broken oil well pipeline gauge near Depew, Oklahoma
J Pat Carter/Getty Images

Officials said the proposal would generate $39.8 million a year in royalties for the U.S. and prevent billions of cubic feet of gas from being wasted through venting, flaring and leaks. The BLM has a statutory mandate and legal authority to prevent the waste of public and tribal resources.

“This draft rule is a common-sense, environmentally responsible solution as we address the damage that wasted natural gas causes,” said BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning. “It puts the American taxpayer first and ensures producers pay appropriate royalties.”

The BLM’s proposed rule comes after the Environmental Protection Agency said it would expand its 2021 methane rule to require drillers to identify and plug leaks at every well site across the country. The EPA said its updated rule would slash methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 87% below 2005 levels and move the U.S. closer to its commitment to curb overall methane emissions by 30% by 2030.

In addition to the EPA rule, the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress earlier this year would impose a tax on energy producers that exceed a certain level of methane emissions.

Mallori Miller, vice president of government relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, argued that federal methane regulation should be handled by the EPA.

“The issue is not as cut and dried as this regulation would make it seem as there are many reasons to vent and flare gas, such as safety concerns and connectivity issues,” Miller said. “Of course, it will always be in the best interest of a producer to capture and sell a commodity on the marketplace when at all possible.”

Cole Ramsey, vice president of upstream policy at the American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry’s largest trade group, said the association supports waste prevention regulations consistent with the Interior’s authority to require the economic capture of greenhouse gasses.

“We look forward to reviewing the proposed regulation in its entirety and will work with BLM in support of a final rule that is cost-effective and furthers the progress we continue to make on reducing emissions,” Ramsey said.

Western and national conservation groups said the proposal marks a critical first step but should be strengthened to eliminate gas flaring.

“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,” said Jon Goldstein, senior director of regulatory and legislative affairs at Environmental Defense Fund.

The BLM is accepting comments on the proposed rule for 60 days and a final rule is anticipated next year.

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