In its latest move to combat climate change, the Obama administration on Friday said it will overhaul 30-year-old regulations for oil and gas operations on public and tribal lands to limit the "wasteful release" of natural gas and curb methane emissions.
The proposal would require oil and gas producers to use currently available technology to limit flaring at oil wells on federal land. It would also require operators to regularly check for natural gas leaks and replace outdated equipment that allows large quantities of gas and methane to escape into the air.
The overhaul would also clarify when oil and gas companies need to pay royalties on flared natural gas.
"These updated regulations, which would be phased in over several years ... would not only get more of our nation’s natural gas into pipelines and delivered to market but also reduce pollution and cut greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to climate change," Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Janice Schneider said.
The proposal comes as a major methane leak from a natural gas storage site near Los Angeles has forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes for months and put a spotlight on emissions oversight.
The proposed rule is estimated to avoid the loss of up to 56 billion cubic feet of gas a year through venting, flaring or leaks, according to the Interior department, which could supply up to about 760,000 households each year.
The overhaul would reduce flaring by up 60 percent and venting by up to 46 percent compared to 2013 rates.
Methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide. Though it only lasts in the atmosphere for 20 years, methane is 84 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat, and environmental groups have pressed the administration for tighter restrictions on leaks.
Schneider told reporters on Friday the overhaul will deliver both financial and environmental benefits.
"The monetary and social cost of release natural gas into the atmosphere are clear and dangerous," she said. "If we are wasting that much energy, we are clearly not operating efficiently."
The proposed rule on methane leaks forms part of the broader Obama administration strategy announced last January to reduce oil and gas sector methane emissions by up to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025.
The strategy includes an Environmental Protection Agency proposal announced in August targeting methane emissions from new or modified oil and gas processing and transmission facilities and wells.
(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Susan Heavey and Meredith Mazzilli)