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Obama vs. Climate Change: Round Two

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Last year, the Obama administration proposed the country's first-ever regulations on carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants, an important step in tackling the largest sources of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Now comes the second big stage of President Barack Obama’s climate strategy, which is no less important to drive down pollution. That finally came Wednesday, after months of anticipation. The White House announced its goal of cutting methane emissions from the oil and gas sector as much as 45 percent over 2012 levels by 2025.

It's a strong goal. The question is whether the strategy the White House outlined will do enough to get there. 

The White House plan combines voluntary and regulatory actions, and cuts across the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA this summer will announce its first rules to target methane directly, under the same Clean Air Act authority under Section 111 that forms the legal basis for last year's carbon pollution regulations. Also this year, the Department of Transportation will propose updated natural gas pipeline safety standards and the Department of Interior will release standards for venting and flaring on public lands. 

The spike in oil and gas production in America has made it impossible to ignore methane, the second-worst offender in greenhouse gas emissions. Natural gas is almost entirely composed of the colorless, odorless gas, and the sector is America's largest source of methane emissions. Per 2012 EPA data, methane accounts for 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But methane's ability to trap heat makes it potentially more dangerous than carbon dioxide. The White House says methane emissions from the oil and gas sector are on track to rise more than 25 percent by 2025, without new regulations. Lowering methane is crucial to meeting Obama's pledges to reduce greenhouse gasses 17 percent by 2020 and 28 percent by 2025. To reach international goals of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the United States ideally would cut its pollution even more. 

Is the new plan enough to do it? Not yet, but that doesn't mean Obama can't and won't go further. 

“The steps to get us started are the right steps,” Jeremy Symons, senior director of Climate Policy at Environmental Defense Fund, told me. “What’s not clear is the roadmap to get us there. We know we can’t achieve this goal without having regulations that cover where the bulk of the emissions are, which is the existing infrastructure of wells of pipeline and oil and gas facilities that are already in place."

According to green groups, the plan doesn't do much to address existing infrastructure, missing the source of 90 percent of oil and gas' methane leaks. The regulations target modified and new sources of methane, a small part of the problem. "Looking out over five years, the vast majority of emissions will come from infrastructure that’s already in place," Symons said. Green groups argue the technology exists to fix this, if the industry is compelled to do so.

The second problem, according to Michael Obeiter, senior associate of the World Resources Institute's Climate and Energy Program, is that some of the EPA's rulemaking targets volatile organic compounds (an air pollutant that makes up smog) rather than methane specifically. It's a meaningful distinction. While air pollution can indicate methane leaks, methane that winds up in the atmosphere after it's stripped of impurities still threatens the climate. By focusing on the pollutants, the EPA misses areas of methane production and transport that leak a large amount of the processed gas. 

Despite the criticisms, green groups are generally pleased with the announcement. They say there's still time to push for more ambitious plans. Meanwhile the oil industry counters that it already has a financial incentive to eliminate methane leaks on its own: methane can be sold to heat homes, so the industry says it has every incentive to innovate to avoid letting revenue to escape into the atmosphere. Regulations are unnecessary and burdensome, according to the American Petroleum Institute, yet the industry has been slow to stem venting and flaring from thousands of wells. 

The oil and gas industry has a good reason for concern. Obama's methane strategy marks a shift in the president's overall climate approach. He now has more than coal in mind when discussing climate action.

This article has been updated.