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Obama administration announces goal to rein in methane leaks

January 14, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
The Obama administration announced a plan to significantly cut methane emissions produced by gas and gas wells by the year 2025 through executive action. Judy Woodruff talks to Coral Davenport of The New York Times and Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University about President Obama’s strategy in addressing climate change and how environmentalists and the industry are reacting to the proposal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama has been increasingly active about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Today, through the power of executive action once again, his administration announced a plan to cut down on methane emissions created by new gas drilling and oil production. The goal? Reduce those emissions by at least 40 percent by the year 2025 from the levels the U.S. reached in 2012.

This comes amid the big rise of fracking in America.

For a closer look at the concerns around methane and the potential impact, we check in with Coral Davenport. She’s a reporter with The New York Times. And Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University and a member of U.N. panels that have issued reports about climate change.

And we welcome you both back to the program.

Coral Davenport, to you first. Why is the president doing this now?

CORAL DAVENPORT, The New York Times: The president really wants to use these last two years of his term to build a legacy on climate change. He knows that he can’t move anything through Congress. He tried that in his first term, and it failed.

Now, with the new Republican Congress, any kind of legislation is DOA, so he’s turned to the power of the Clean Air Act, an existing law, under which he can put out regulations to govern pollution from different sectors of the economy. We have seen him move forward on regulations on emissions from vehicles, emissions from power plants.

So this is another piece of the economy. He’s going sector by sector by sector to rein in emissions wherever they are. So these methane emissions from oil and gas wells, the oil and gas sector are a big piece of the nation’s greenhouse gas pollution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Michael Oppenheimer, help us understand why methane is such a concern. We hear a lot about carbon dioxide. What about methane?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER, Princeton University: Well, methane is right behind carbon dioxide as the second most important global warming gas.

In fact, it contributes more than 20 percent of the current warming effect. The other thing about methane that you have to understand is, per ton emitted, it’s at least 28 times — 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It’s just that we emit a lot more carbon dioxide.

So it’s important to reduce the emissions of methane if you’re going to solve the problem. Finally, methane responds much more quickly to reductions in emissions than does carbon dioxide. So if you want to affect the rate of warming over the next few decades, you need to complement the very deep cuts in carbon dioxide that we need to solve the problem with parallel cuts in methane.

And that will give human beings a greater opportunity to adapt to climate change by slowing the rate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Professor Oppenheimer, following up, we mentioned fracking. Is fracking inherently producing methane and that’s a big part of this, or is it the fact that there’s just more fracking than there used to be, so the amount of methane is increasing? Help us get that straight.

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: The gas — the process of extracting, delivering and using gas leaks end to end, and part of that is the leaking at the wellhead. And fracking is certainly an important part of that problem.

We don’t have good numbers for the whole stream, but we can tell you that from the extraction of the gas, to the pumping of it, to putting it in the transmission lines, to transmitting it to cities, to distributing it, and then right to the utility, to the appliances in your home, the system leaks. And getting those leaks fixed, not in any one spot, but through the whole system, including the wellheads of the fracking wells, is very important. And that’s what this proposal aims to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Coral Davenport, how is the oil and gas industry reacting to this?

CORAL DAVENPORT: The oil and gas industry hates new regulations.

They have been insisting all along that they don’t need these new regulations. One of their arguments is, methane is a component of natural gas, and thus a part of what oil and gas producers are pulling out of the ground and moving to market and selling.

Oil and gas producers say, look, it’s in our financial interest to keep those leaks from happening. The more methane leaks, the more we lose money, you don’t need to regulate us, we’re going to self-regulate anyway.

And that’s sort of been the industry’s argument. The problem with that is, there are a lot of leaks, as Professor Oppenheimer said. There was a study in “Science” last year that found that methane is leaking from oil and gas production and transportation systems at rates 50 percent higher than previously thought. So they don’t like it, but they do also have the technology to comply.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the environmental community? What are they saying? Are they pleased?

CORAL DAVENPORT: The environmental community is partially pleased, partially displeased. I think it’s — these regulations are never fully strong enough for them.

These regulations address new or future oil and gas production facilities. They actually don’t directly address existing oil and gas production facilities. So, environmentalists say, well, this is great. New oil and gas production will have to be built with regulations to prevent leaks.

The regulations will say — the administration will work with the industry on voluntary plans for existing facilities. Environmentalists say, that’s not good enough. They’re going to push for the administration to move forward later with regulations on existing facilities. But we may not see that for several years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Michael Oppenheimer, we know the president has signed on, has committed to some international agreements on improving the environment. How will this set of regulations, this particular set of regulations on methane play into that? How much of a difference will it make?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: We have to make a full-court press if we’re going to get ahead of global warming and avoid the danger zone, which starts above a warming of somewhere around three-and-a-half or four degrees Fahrenheit warming.

We’re never going to make that unless we have deep cuts in carbon dioxide and make collateral cuts in the other greenhouse gases. And this has to start now, or else we will simply never get there. I just want to add to one of Coral’s points, that the cost of these measures is really modest.

It’s estimated at about one penny per 1,000 BTU. So, if — 1,000 cubic feet. So, for instance, for a typical home in New York during the winter, it might add dimes to the heating bill of a typical user. You’re not really going to notice this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Oppenheimer, Coral Davenport, we thank you both.

CORAL DAVENPORT: Thanks so much.