President releases methane part of climate plan
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April 04, 2014
President releases methane part of climate plan

As part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, the White House announced its Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions.  The strategy, which will combine the efforts of multiple federal agencies, is a combination of voluntary initiatives and promised regulatory actions. 

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Sectors already subject to federal rules, including oil and gas, coal mining, and landfills, will be facing new or updated standards, possibly within the next several years.  A voluntary program addressing methane emissions from agriculture is also in the works.  Another component of the strategy is to improve technologies to monitor methane emissions.

9 percent of U.S. emissions

Methane is a common and powerful greenhouse gas (GHG), with a global warming potential (GWP) about 20 times that of carbon dioxide (CO2) on a ton-to-ton basis.  The administration estimates that in 2012, human activity in the United States accounted for methane emissions equivalent to approximately 560 million metric tons of CO2, about 9 percent of all domestic GHG emissions. 

Since 1990, methane emissions in the United States have decreased by 11 percent, even as many activities that can produce methane have increased. However, methane emissions are projected to increase to a level equivalent to over 620 million tons of CO2 pollution in 2030 absent additional action.  The main sources of human-related methane emissions are agriculture (36 percent), natural gas systems (23 percent), landfills (18 percent), coal mining (10 percent), petroleum systems (6 percent), and wastewater treatment (2 percent).   

Regulatory actions

The administration does not make a specific commitment in terms of future volume reductions of methane releases to the atmosphere.  Instead, the strategy states that it “will make an important contribution” to the administration’s nonstatutory goal of reducing GHG emissions “in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.”

The following regulatory measures and associated voluntary programs are outlined in the strategy:

  • Landfills.  In the summer of 2014, the EPA will propose updated standards to reduce methane emissions from new landfills and take public comment on whether to update standards for existing landfills.  Also, through the Landfill Methane Outreach Program, the EPA will further reduce methane emissions through voluntary programs—partnering with industry, state, and local leaders, many of whom are putting methane waste to use powering their communities.
  • Coal mines.  In April 2014, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will release an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) to gather public input on the development of a program for the capture and sale or disposal of waste mine methane on lands leased by the federal government.  In addition, the EPA will continue to partner with industry through its voluntary program to reduce institutional, technical, regulatory, and financial barriers to beneficial methane recovery and use at coal mines.
  • Oil and gas (O&G).  In the spring of 2014, the EPA will assess several potentially significant sources of methane and other emissions from the O&G sector.  The EPA will solicit input from independent experts through a series of technical white papers, and in the fall of 2014, the Agency will determine how best to pursue further methane reductions from these sources.  If the EPA decides to develop additional regulations, it will complete those regulations by the end of 2016.  Through the Natural Gas STAR program, the EPA will work with the industry to expand voluntary efforts to reduce methane emissions.

Also, later in 2014, the BLM will propose updated standards to reduce venting and flaring from oil and gas production on public lands.

Agriculture and measurement

The agricultural part of the methane strategy is aimed at promoting manure management through the use of anaerobic digestion and biogas utilization.  This June, in partnership with industry, the USDA, EPA, and DOE will jointly release a Biogas Roadmap outlining voluntary strategies to accelerate the adoption of biogas systems and other cost-effective technologies to reduce GHG emissions.  Also, the USDA will continue to support biogas system deployment by providing financial and technical assistance.

The strategy notes that there are significant uncertainties in the measurement of methane emissions, which are unevenly dispersed across the landscape.  Actions that will improve the measurement and accuracy of the overall national GHG Inventory include DOE funding to deliver an order-of-magnitude reduction on the cost of methane sensing technologies, thereby encouraging their broader use, and EPA’s continued improvement of emissions factors used to calculate and report emissions under the Agency’s GHG Reporting Program.

Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions 

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