The White House took steps Friday toward issuing methane emissions regulations at hydraulic fracturing sites, a move that would slash greenhouse gas emissions in hopes of meeting President Obama's climate goals but will invite backlash from industry.
The news is a victory for environmental groups, which note that methane -- a short-lived, potent greenhouse gas that has a 20 times greater impact on climate change than carbon dioxide -- is the largest remaining unregulated greenhouse gas, accounting for 9 percent of U.S. emissions.
The oil and gas industry, however, has warned that regulating methane emissions would stunt domestic energy production by raising costs on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a drilling method that injects a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into tight rock formations to access hydrocarbons buried underneath.
Dan Utech, President Obama's top climate adviser, said Friday in a media call that "we won't know specifically for a while what this strategy will deliver." He said a State Department report that included similar recommendations covering oil and gas, agriculture, landfills and mines would take between 25 and 90 million metric tons of methane out of the atmosphere by 2020.
"This is a rapidly evolving space," Utech said, adding that tamping down methane emissions would help meet Obama administration goals of cutting emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by the end of the decade.
The strategy is part of an interagency effort that cuts across several sectors. Other actions outlined Friday include new standards for reducing methane emissions from new landfills, looking into ways to capture, sell or dispose of waste mine methane on federal lands and issue voluntary methods for cutting dairy sector methane emissions 25 percent by 2020.
The potential oil and gas industry regulations topped the list of recommendations, which come from an interagency task force on methane. The Environmental Protection Agency will conduct a series of white papers this spring and decide in the fall whether to issue new regulations, which would be due by the end of 2016.
The oil and gas industry has argued that fracking has helped address climate change by driving natural gas production, which has half the carbon intensity of coal. An abundance of cheap natural gas pushed electric utilities to burn the fuel more often last year, causing U.S. carbon emissions to hit a 19-year low.
But environmental groups argue that fracking also produces methane leaks that can erase its climate advantage, and note that excess methane is often burned at fracking sites because it cannot be sold or used.
"This announcement is the most recent development in a year where both the impacts and solutions from methane emissions have come into clearer focus, creating new momentum for action," said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Utech said that regulations, if that's the route the administration decides to go, would likely occur at the fracking well site on both private and public lands. The White House said the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management would issue updated standards on flaring and venting on federal lands this year.
As for drilling on private land, Utech pointed to current EPA standards on voluntary organic compounds, which can contribute to methane, as prior experience with regulating at wells.
"EPA has already taken steps to regulate new gas wells," he said.
The oil and gas industry has argued that new pipeline infrastructure would limit flaring. The industry, with its congressional allies, have pushed for faster federal permitting to build those pipelines.
Utech said that the administration planned to work with industry on that issue. He pointed to the inter-agency Quadrennial Energy Review due Jan. 31, which is assessing the nation's energy infrastructure.
"The answer is yes," Utech said of improving pipeline infrastructure.