Gas Flare
Gas is flared an at oil refinery in China's Taklamakan Desert. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday will unveil proposals for reducing flaring and other causes of methane emissions from U.S. oil and gas operations. Frederic J. Brown/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The Obama administration on Tuesday is expected to propose the first federal regulations for cutting methane pollution from the U.S. oil and gas industries. The rules are a key part of President Barack Obama’s plan for tackling climate change across the nation’s energy sectors.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal will call for cutting methane emissions from oil and gas wells and pipeline and processing infrastructure. Those cuts will help reach a broader goal of slashing industry methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent over the next decade from 2012 levels, media reports said late Monday. Industry and environmental groups widely expected the rules, which EPA officials said they have been working on since January.

While methane is less abundant in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide -- it accounts for less than 10 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions -- methane is dozens of times more potent as a greenhouse gas, meaning that relatively small amounts of methane can have an immediate and powerful impact on climate change. Faulty oil and gas equipment and leaky systems emit more than 8 million metric tons of unburned methane each year, the climate equivalent of running 180 coal-fired power plants, the EPA says.

Methane Gas Chart
Natural gas and petroleum systems are the largest sources of methane (CH4) emissions from industry in the United States. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The methane proposal comes just weeks after Obama unveiled the final version of his Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut emissions of carbon dioxide by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. The landmark rules are expected to accelerate the nation’s transition away from carbon-intensive coal-fired power and toward natural gas and renewable energy sources, including solar and wind power.

Oil and gas industry groups have said they oppose Obama’s methane plan. Energy producers will be required to install technology that prevents accidental methane leaks and monitors their operations for emissions. The American Petroleum Institute in January argued that companies are tackling methane on their own, rendering a federal initiative unnecessary and burdensome.

The methane proposal has also drawn criticism from environmental groups, who offered only tepid praise for the plan when the EPA first announced it earlier this year. The proposal will initially target only new and modified oil and gas facilities, while existing facilities -- which account for 90 percent of the industry’s methane emissions -- will remain virtually off the hook from federal regulations. Experts have said it will be extremely difficult to reach the EPA’s 45 percent emissions reduction target without requiring cuts from existing facilities.