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EPA proposes cuts in methane emissions

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration outlined plans on Tuesday for sharply reducing emissions of methane gas from oil and gas operations, taking aim at a potent greenhouse gas that studies suggest is playing an accelerating role in the earth’s warming.

A proposed rule announced by the Environmental Protection Agency seeks to slash methane pollution from the nation’s energy sector, in part by requiring emissions controls on new hydraulic fracturing or ‘‘fracking’’ operations and by curbing leaks from pipelines and storage tanks, agency officials said.

The proposed measure, which faces heavy opposition from fossil-fuel companies, represents the first effort by the EPA to directly regulate emissions of methane, the primary component in natural gas. As a greenhouse gas, methane is 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere.

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EPA officials said the proposed rule builds on previous efforts to reduce air pollution, while also helping energy companies recover and sell methane that otherwise would be allowed to escape into the atmosphere.

‘‘We can continue to accelerate the transition to a clean-energy economy by capturing fuel that would otherwise be wasted, while also preventing pollution that harms our climate and the health of our families and communities,’’ said Janet McCabe, the EPA’s acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, in announcing the measure.

The proposal’s formal unveiling comes seven months after the agency announced its intention to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas sector with the aim of ultimately achieving reductions of 40 percent to 45 percent by 2025, compared with 2012 levels. The oil and gas industry accounts for 30 percent of the methane released from US sources each year, much of it resulting from leaks from drilling rigs, pipelines, and storage tanks, agency officials say.

In addition to requiring pollution controls on new equipment, the new restrictions would apply to existing oil and gas operations in parts of the country with high levels of air pollution, agency officials said. The EPA predicts that the rule would cost the industry $320 million to $420 million by 2025, with the costs being offset by savings of up to $550 million in preventing illnesses related to air pollution and climate change.

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Industry officials criticized the proposal, saying the EPA was imposing more costs on oil and gas companies without taking into account industry efforts to reduce emissions through voluntary measures. Energy companies already have a strong financial incentive to avoid wasting methane, said Jack Gerard, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute.

‘‘The oil and gas industry is leading the charge in reducing methane,’’ Gerard said. ‘‘The last thing we need is more duplicative and costly regulation that could increase the cost of energy for Americans.’’ He said emissions from hydraulically fractured natural gas wells have fallen nearly 79 percent in the past decade, ‘‘due to industry leadership and significant investments in new technologies.’’

Environmental groups voiced support for the proposal, though some said the measure would not achieve the kinds of emissions cuts that the EPA has projected.

‘‘The nation’s oil and gas companies emit over 7 million tons of methane pollution every year, equal to the greenhouse gas pollution of about 160 coal-fired power plants over the next 20 years,’’ said Fred Krupp, president of the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund. Although the EPA’s proposal is a first step, ‘‘additional actions by government are needed to achieve this goal,’’ Krupp said.

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The EPA’s announcement coincided with a study that suggests that the industry’s contributions to methane pollution far exceed official estimates.

The study, in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, said methane leaks from processing and storage facilities were three times as high as the EPA’s data suggests. The study, by 11 scientists from Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, based its conclusions on new measurements taken from more than 140 natural gas facilities in 13 US states.