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U.S. oil industry group launches voluntary program to cut methane

WASHINGTON, Dec 5 (Reuters) - The American Petroleum Institute on Tuesday launched a voluntary program to cut emissions of the greenhouse gas methane from oil and gas operations, a move environmentalists said was not strong enough to adequately protect the climate.

Under the program, agreed to by 26 companies including Exxon Mobil subsidiary XTO Energy, Shell, and Pioneer Natural Resources, drillers aim to reduce emissions of methane by plugging leaks, reducing venting at aging wells, and replacing or retrofitting equipment called pneumatic controllers.

The program, on both existing and new facilities, does not set numerical goals to reduce the emissions.

"There's a lot of different ways to look at the data, we could get wrapped around percentages," Eric Milito, the head of upstream and industry operations at the API, said about why the program does not set numerical goals. It is a "surgical approach" where the industry sees it is targeting the top three areas where technology and methods to reduce emissions exist, he said.

The Interior Department's rules on methane waste from drillers on public lands, where about 9 percent of the natural gas and 5 percent of the oil was produced in the United States last fiscal year, went into effect in January. But the administration of President Donald Trump, which is trying to maximize output of fossil fuels, has sought to delay implementation of the rule, a move a federal judge struck down in October.

The API said most companies will agree to take action on each of the three areas, but only have to agree to reducing emissions in one of the areas.

Companies will implement the agreement in January and submit annual reports on their progress, available to the public.

Environmentalists criticized the effort. "Self-policing and voluntary measures continue the status quo: undocumented pollution, problems left unaddressed, and no industry accountability," said Lauren Pagel, a policy director, at Earthworks. Pagel said the program is moving in the opposite direction of robust and enforceable national and state safeguards.

The Environmental Protection Agency designated a separate voluntary program called One Future in late 2016 to report methane reductions. But only about 10 companies signed on, out of about 8,000 operating independent producers, as low gas prices made drillers wary to take on new commitments.

Energy companies say the rule could cost them tens of thousands of dollars per well. The API has said the rule is unnecessary because drillers have made strides in cutting the emissions. (Reporting by Timothy Gardner; editing by Diane Craft)