When Obama’s ‘All of the Above’ and Global Warming Collide

A gas flare, created when excess flammable gases are released by pressure valves during natural gas and oil drilling, rises out of the ground in North Dakota.
National Journal
Jason Plautz and Clare Foran
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Jason Plautz and Clare Foran
March 28, 2014, 9:03 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama is tak­ing an­oth­er care­ful step on the tightrope between en­ergy pro­duc­tion and en­vir­on­ment­al pro­tec­tion with a plan to tackle the po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous side ef­fects of the oil and gas boom.

The White House on Fri­day re­leased a dir­ect­ive on meth­ane emis­sions, a green­house gas es­tim­ated to have 20 to 30 times more power to wreak hav­oc on the cli­mate than car­bon di­ox­ide. It’s part of a prom­ise the pres­id­ent made last June when he un­veiled his second-term cli­mate agenda. At the same time, it keeps alive the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “all of the above” en­ergy plan that has won praise from the en­ergy sec­tor while giv­ing en­vir­on­ment­al­ists pause.

The strategy won’t res­ult in any new reg­u­la­tions on oil and gas com­pan­ies — at least not yet. Start­ing this spring, the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency will cata­log and quanti­fy meth­ane re­leased from the sec­tor, with the be­ne­fit of in­dustry in­put and help from tech­nic­al ex­perts. After the agency is fin­ished col­lect­ing data, it will “de­term­ine how best to pur­sue fur­ther meth­ane re­duc­tions” in the fall.

Sound am­bigu­ous? It is.

EPA could opt to dir­ectly reg­u­late in­dustry emis­sions — or not. If it de­cides to write new reg­u­la­tions, they won’t be fi­nal­ized un­til the end of 2016 at the earli­est.

“We won’t know spe­cific­ally for a while what this strategy will de­liv­er,” Dan Utech, a pres­id­en­tial ad­viser on cli­mate change, said dur­ing a press call to an­nounce the plan. The White House has left it­self plenty of wiggle room — a polit­ic­al pos­ture that has quickly be­come the norm as the pres­id­ent tries to bal­ance in­dustry and en­vir­on­ment­al in­terests.

Oil and gas drilling has surged in re­cent years — a boom fueled by frack­ing — and so too have fears that en­ergy pro­duc­tion could cause real en­vir­on­ment­al dam­age. Nat­ur­al gas has a lower car­bon foot­print than king coal, but meth­ane is of­ten re­leased at well sites and drilling op­er­a­tions. Nat­ur­al gas can also be flared dur­ing oil pro­duc­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the White House, meth­ane makes up 9 per­cent of do­mest­ic green­house-gas emis­sions and is set to rise through 2030 without ac­tion.

This has cre­ated a polit­ic­al mine­field for the pres­id­ent. Obama has re­peatedly touted the be­ne­fits of nat­ur­al-gas pro­duc­tion. But en­vir­on­ment­al­ists have pressed the pres­id­ent to crack down on meth­ane emis­sions and the re­lease of oth­er volat­ile or­gan­ic com­pounds that can leak or vent from oil and gas equip­ment.

A lack of clar­ity over how much meth­ane is giv­en off dur­ing nat­ur­al-gas pro­duc­tion has only fueled de­bate. A Har­vard Uni­versity study pub­lished last year in the journ­al Sci­ence re­por­ted that U.S. meth­ane emis­sions are up to 50 per­cent great­er than EPA pre­vi­ously es­tim­ated.

And the sci­ence is far from settled.

“There’s a lot of un­cer­tainty here,” said Howard Feld­man, the Amer­ic­an Pet­ro­leum In­sti­tute’s dir­ect­or of reg­u­lat­ory and sci­entif­ic af­fairs. “There are dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to look­ing at this, and people get dif­fer­ent res­ults all the time.”

As a res­ult, the White House is try­ing to find a middle ground. Be­cause of what Utech called a “rap­idly evolving space,” the ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­pears to be fol­low­ing the same tenu­ous path laid out by the En­vir­on­ment­al De­fense Fund, a green group that has found it­self largely on its own in the en­vir­on­ment­al com­munity by boost­ing nat­ur­al gas while seek­ing ways to make it clean­er. Com­ment­ing on the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s meth­ane strategy, EDF Pres­id­ent Fred Krupp said he was “con­fid­ent that the case for ac­tion is strong.”

“A fed­er­al policy that es­tab­lishes a level play­ing field will en­sure that all of in­dustry does its part to re­duce pol­lu­tion and waste at a time when mak­ing the most of do­mest­ic en­ergy re­sources is crit­ic­ally im­port­ant,” Krupp said.

EDF worked with Col­or­ado and sev­er­al drilling com­pan­ies last year on state-level rules for gas ex­trac­tion that in­cluded dir­ect reg­u­la­tions of meth­ane emis­sions.

As part of the White House strategy re­leased Fri­day, the Bur­eau of Land Man­age­ment will up­date stand­ards on vent­ing and flar­ing — prac­tices that can re­lease meth­ane — on pub­lic lands, while the En­ergy De­part­ment will ex­plore oth­er op­tions for emis­sions re­duc­tion. The White House will also dir­ect agen­cies to tackle meth­ane emis­sions from land­fills, waste mines and the dairy sec­tor.

While en­vir­on­ment­al groups were quick to praise the dir­ect­ive, many still high­lighted the ul­ti­mate goal of mov­ing bey­ond nat­ur­al gas en­tirely.

“Re­quired meth­ane con­trols for the oil and gas sec­tor are es­sen­tial,” said Deb Nardone, dir­ect­or of the Si­erra Club’s Keep­ing Dirty Fuels in the Ground cam­paign. “However, even with the most rig­or­ous meth­ane con­trols and mon­it­or­ing in place, we will still fall short of what is needed to fight cli­mate dis­rup­tion if we do not re­duce our re­li­ance on these dirty fossil fuels.”

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