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US regulator vows ‘aggressive’ crackdown on oil and gas methane leaks

The US’s top environmental enforcer vowed that no oil and gas systems would be “getting out of jail free” as the Biden administration strengthens a clampdown on methane pollution despite pushback from energy companies and Republican allies in Congress.

The Biden administration has made curbs on leaks of methane — the main component of natural gas — a crucial part of its fight to slash greenhouse gas emissions. Methane has accounted for around 30 per cent of the rise in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution, according to the International Energy Agency.

Michael Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said in an interview that the administration was ready to “fight hard” against efforts to weaken new regulations to control methane emitted from oil and gas infrastructure.

“There are no facilities that are getting out of jail free,” Regan told the Financial Times in an interview. “We’ve designed a very aggressive rule to ensure that everyone that’s contributing to this problem has some full accounting for that.”

US oil and gas systems account for about a third of the country’s methane emissions, through leaks, ineffective flaring — the burning of excess gas — and deliberate releases into the atmosphere.

The EPA is finalising a new rule that will force energy companies to find and plug methane leaks at new and existing wellheads, pipeline compressor stations and other sites. The agency is also planning to charge emitters up to $1,500 a tonne — the first nationwide fee on a greenhouse gas — as required by last year’s sweeping climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act.

The latest proposals come after the EPA was criticised for going too soft on the sector in an earlier version of regulations published in 2021.

Companies needed to “step up and do more”, Regan said. “There was a time where we had trouble chasing these emissions. We’re beyond that.”

Many in the oil and gas industry have fought back, saying the new measures will add to costs just as President Joe Biden has called for them to drill more wells. They also say that a “Super Emitter Response Programme” incorporated into the pending rule, which would allow private groups to monitor and report leaks, will hand undue power to environmental activists.

“My message to EPA would be to work with industry to correct some of these sharp left turns that we see in the rule to ensure that the final rule is appropriately stringent, but also appropriately workable,” said Anne Bradbury, chief executive of the American Exploration and Production Council, an industry group.

A bill put forward by Republicans in the House of Representatives last month aims to strip the per-tonne methane fee out of the Inflation Reduction Act, though the proposal is unlikely to garner sufficient Senate support to become law.

Biden would resist any efforts to defang the new rules and pick apart the IRA, Regan said, adding: “The President is going to fight hard . . . I don’t think any of us want to see it torn apart.”

The EPA expects to finalise the methane rule this year. The new fees will come into effect from 2024. “We’re very optimistic that we can control and curtail these emissions,” Regan said. “We want to go further and faster than we’ve ever gone before.”

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