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."