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By Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Wednesday will announce an aggressive new plan to combat global warming by targeting the methane emissions released through oil and gas production, according to a summary of the initiative obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

The proposal seeks to cut those emissions — a major driver of climate change — by as much as 45 percent by 2025. A White House briefing paper describes methane as “a potent greenhouse gas, with 25 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.”

Methane accounted for nearly 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2012, and the amount of the gas released into the atmosphere is projected to rise substantially amid the boom in domestic oil and gas production.

The call for tighter controls on methane is part of President Barack Obama’s effort to use his executive authority under the Clean Air Act to confront global warming. The administration earlier unveiled plans for strict limits on power plant emissions. Like that proposal, the methane plan is certain to draw protests and legal challenges from big energy companies.

Officials at the American Petroleum Institute have warned Obama against imposing such rules. They say energy companies are already making progress in lowering methane emissions without government intervention, pointing to big investments in new technologies and equipment. Oil and gas companies have reduced their emissions below what the federal government projected they would be by now, the officials say.

When Obama signaled in the spring that methane rules would be a key part of his climate plan, Howard Feldman, the petroleum institute’s director of regulatory and scientific affairs, said such “regulations are not necessary and could have a chilling effect on the American energy renaissance, our economy, and our national security.”

On Wednesday the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce it is launching the lengthy rulemaking process for the methane plan. Its goal is to have a draft rule published by summer and the new limits in place by next year.

“This is indeed a landmark moment,” said a statement from Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. “Methane pollution is both an environmental problem and a needless waste of energy, and we need responsible oversight of an issue that industry has failed to address.”

But climate change activists cautioned that the administration’s plan exempts most existing wells and drilling operations, targeting instead the new projects that come online. The Clean Air Task Force, a group that has been lobbying the administration to target methane, warned that the exemption creates a considerable loophole.

“Failing to immediately regulate existing oil and gas equipment nationwide misses 90 percent of the methane pollution from the industry,” said Conrad Schneider, the group’s advocacy director. “The administration is proposing to fight methane pollution with one hand tied behind its back, not using the full range of powers under the Clean Air Act to cut these emissions.”

The plan would instead rely on the industry to police itself for those facilities, through a voluntary system of monitoring and reporting. The provision reflects the tightrope the administration is walking. Robust oil and gas production is a key part of Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy. The summary of the administration plan lauds the strides the U.S. has made in natural gas production, pointing out that it is now the top producer in the world.

The administration frames its plan as a potential boon for energy efficiency, noting that it encourages the use of technologies that will capture more fuel.

“Reducing methane emissions means capturing valuable fuel that is otherwise wasted and reducing other harmful pollutants — a win for public health and the economy,” it says. Enough natural gas could be saved by 2025 to heat more than 2 million homes, according to the administration.

AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

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