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U.S., Canada Pledge To Lower Methane Emissions In Oil And Gas sectors


Here is President Obama yesterday.


BARACK OBAMA: Canada's joining us in our aggressive goal to bring down methane emissions in the oil and gas sectors in both of our countries.

GREENE: Cutting methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent over the next nine years. That is the president's latest effort to curb greenhouse gasses. And let's learn more about methane emissions from NPR's John Burnett.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and the largest component of natural gas. The world's largest industrial source of methane is the oil and gas industry. It's no surprise, then, that the biggest contributor of methane to the atmosphere is the nation's energy behemoth, Texas. That's why I've come to the Karnes County airport in the vast Eagle Ford shale field south of San Antonio to meet up with Michael Mayfield. He's a leak detection specialist contracted by the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund.

MICHAEL MAYFIELD: We're about to take off in a helicopter and go survey the oil fields that surround here for methane leaks.

BURNETT: Our little blue chopper streaks over a bleak landscape of mesquite, scrub oak and deer blinds. The view is punctuated by oil and gas installations that suck hydrocarbons out of the earth and store them in great cylindrical tanks.

MAYFIELD: OK. So we spotted a leak, so we're going to go ahead and orbit this.

BURNETT: A technician sitting next to me points an infrared camera at a battery of tanks. In the monitor, you can clearly see methane gushing from a vent in one of the tanks. Methane leaks are bad news. First, the company would rather capture it and sell it. Second, the gas can be toxic to nearby cattle at high concentrations. Third, methane contributes to global warming.

The Environmental Protection Agency now begins developing strict rules to require the oil and gas industry to reduce methane leaks, not just in the future but from thousands of existing sources, like oil wells, pipelines, flare stacks and tank vents. Kyle Isakower, with the American Petroleum Institute, complained that the industry was already reducing methane emissions without the heavy hand of Obama's EPA. He told reporters in a conference call that these new regulations will inevitably drive up the cost of energy.


KYLE ISAKOWER: While we don't have a dollar figure, we can only assume that the economic impacts of regulating existing wells is going to be massive.

BURNETT: The EPA asserts these methane controls are a response to new data that puts annual releases of methane at nine million tons a year - a lot more than previously thought. The new information came from several sources, including the Environmental Defense Fund. Its president is Fred Krupp.

FRED KRUPP: The emissions are substantially higher than anyone knew. So we're thrilled that the president and EPA have decided to move rapidly to regulate existing source emissions.

BURNETT: The EDF says new rules will likely require oil and gas companies to conduct more frequent leak detection. They may end up hiring the same Texas crew that I flew with that discovered a methane plume coming out of a storage tank - a leak the company was completely unaware of. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.