Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said the agency is on track to release its strategy for controlling methane gas leaks this fall, but didn't hint at whether it would include new regulations.
McCarthy, speaking Tuesday at a Barclays-hosted conference in New York, said the strategy would be designed to aid investment into the natural gas sector, especially when it comes to building needed pipelines. She didn't commit to what it would include, saying only that the EPA was looking at potential "cost-effective regulatory" as well as "voluntary" initiatives.
The strategy "will clearly articulate how we can most cost-effectively reduce [volatile organic compounds, a precursor to smog] and methane ... to ensure that oil and natural gas will continue to be a factor," McCarthy said.
The White House announced it was drafting an inter-agency strategy to combat methane emissions in March, a move that would address the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions that the EPA currently doesn't regulate. The short-lived, but potent, greenhouse gas traps heat 25 times more than carbon dioxide, and accounts for about 9 percent of United States greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA.
Some in the oil and gas industry have worried the EPA might be marching toward new regulations for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, wells that have driven the natural gas and oil boom. Doing so would curtail investment, they say, and possibly force smaller, independent drillers out of business.
But environmentalists are concerned that enough methane escapes during fracking to erase the climate benefits of natural gas, which is half as carbon-dense as coal and has become increasingly used in electricity generation. They've pushed the EPA to issue strong regulations to prevent leaks during fracking, a practice that injects a high-pressure cocktail of water, sand and chemicals into tight-rock formations to tap hydrocarbons buried deep underground.
Scientific studies regarding the amount of methane emissions from fracking vary widely. The field is new, given fracking's quick acceleration in the drilling industry over the past five years. Differing methodologies have also contributed to a range of results.
While McCarthy strayed from discussing potential regulations, she made the case to investors at the conference that spending their dollars on natural gas infrastructure was worth their while.
McCarthy noted drillers and states are missing out on potential revenues because the U.S. doesn't have sufficient pipeline capacity to absorb all the natural gas that's being developed — instead, energy firms burn off the excess gas because they can't use it. Product is also lost through leaky pipelines that send natural gas into homes, resulting in a hit for consumers.
"We have an opportunity to really put profits back in the pocketbooks of not only the business community and investors," but also residents, McCarthy said.