WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must act to rein in methane pollution from the oil and gas industry, environmental groups said on Thursday, warning that failure to set federal standards would undermine other Obama administration efforts to address climate change.
The EPA is expected to lay out a plan within months to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas drilling as a part of President Barack Obama's broad climate action plan.
A coalition of major green groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council, urged Obama in a letter to "swiftly" issue binding emission regulations on oil and gas production, the largest industrial source of methane.
Voluntary measures would not be enough to contain methane pollution, said Mark Brownstein, chief counsel of the U.S. climate and energy program at the EDF.
"It's very clear that direct regulation of both new and existing sources is going to be critical if we are truly going to address this problem," Brownstein said on a conference call with reporters.
Low-cost technologies to limit methane emissions are already commercially available and could lower the release of methane from the oil and gas industry by up to 50 percent in five years, the groups said in their letter to Obama.
Oil and gas producers oppose federal regulations, saying energy companies have already worked to lower emissions and that state governments are better placed to handle these issues.
But the environmentalists argued that without strict and enforceable rules on methane, the effectiveness of pollution reductions from the EPA's separate proposal to limit carbon emissions from the nation's more than 1,000 power plants could be undercut.
Methane, emitted during the production and transmission of oil and natural gas, is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but it does not remain in the atmosphere as long.
"We don't want to see the continuation of the high levels of (methane) leakage that erode the benefit of the power plant standard," said David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program for the NRDC.
Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Leslie Adler