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EPA: Volunteering doesn't mean industry mandates go away

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Voluntary methane program doesn't replace regulations, says EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The Environmental Protection Agency's new voluntary program to regulate methane emissions doesn't mean the energy industry is off the hook when it comes to new agency mandates.

"The voluntary Methane Challenge program is one important part of our overarching strategy to reduce methane emissions," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said Wednesday in announcing the new program. It "complements," but does not replace, regulatory efforts to reduce methane emissions 40 to 45 percent by 2025.

The EPA says methane is 25 times more damaging to the climate than the more common greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Cutting methane from the oil and gas sector is a major part of the White House's climate change agenda in 2017, after enacting landmark regulations for the utility industry last year.

Forty-one companies signed onto the program, including a number of natural gas distribution companies, which underscored the industry's efforts to cut methane emissions without regulations or mandates. "EPA has recognized the success of our voluntary efforts by continuing to address emissions from distribution through voluntary actions rather than regulatory mandates," said American Gas Association Chairman Ralph LaRossa.

The program's announcement follows the EPA's proposal announced earlier this month to regulate methane from oil and gas production wells. The proposed methane rules, and other actions, have been met with skepticism by the oil and gas industry, which argues that it has already cut emissions of the potent greenhouse gas through its own industry initiatives.

McCarthy said the Methane Challenge program provides a platform for companies to transparently report actions that reduce methane emissions. It also will recognize the companies as publicly recognized leaders in reducing emissions.

The Natural Gas STAR Methane Challenge is a counterpart to a prior voluntary program for cutting carbon dioxide from the oil and gas sector called Gas STAR.

Wednesday's announcement was made at the Global Methane Forum in Washington. The forum represents a collaboration among 43 countries to cut methane emissions as part of the move to combat global warming. Many scientists blame greenhouse gases for raising the temperature of the Earth's atmosphere, resulting in sea-level rise, ocean acidification and droughts.

The global initiative seeks "cost-effective methane reductions across five sectors: municipal solid waste, wastewater, agriculture, coal, and the oil and gas sector," EPA said.