WASHINGTON, March 10 (Reuters) - The United States and Canada agreed joint steps on Thursday to fight climate change, including cutting methane emissions from oil and gas operations and signing last year's Paris climate deal "as soon as feasible."
The agreement was announced as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Barack Obama met at the White House. Methane, which can leak from pipelines and valves, is a powerful greenhouse gas, with up to 80 times the potential of carbon dioxide to trap the planet's heat.
The agreement can do "even more to protect our countries and our communities, especially in the Arctic, from climate change," Obama said during a welcoming ceremony for Trudeau.
The two countries are seeking to improve relations after Obama last year rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, which was aimed at transporting heavy Canadian oil to the United States. Environmentalists had long opposed the project, which had been under review by Washington for years.
Trudeau, a Liberal, had expressed qualified support for Keystone in his campaign. The project had been heavily promoted by his predecessor, Stephen Harper, a Conservative from Alberta's oil patch.
On Thursday, the two countries committed to cutting emissions of methane by 40 to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025, to take steps to fight climate change in the Arctic, and to speed development of green technologies.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will begin developing regulations for methane emissions from existing oil and gas sources immediately and "will move as expeditiously as possible to complete this process," the joint agreement said.
The EPA will start by collecting emissions data from oil and gas companies before embarking on a rulemaking process.
"The new data show that methane emissions are substantially higher than we previously understood. So, it's time to take a closer look at regulating existing sources of methane emissions," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in blog post.
Meanwhile, Environment and Climate Change Canada "intends to publish an initial phase of proposed regulations by early 2017," and put in place national regulations in collaboration with provinces, territories, and indigenous groups.
LEADING THE WAY
Environmental groups welcomed Thursday's announcement after years of pressing the EPA to expand its oil and gas sector methane rules.
Mark Brownstein, a climate expert at the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund, said the countries, two of the world's largest petroleum drillers, showed real leadership in "setting a mark for other major oil and gas producing nations."
But the EPA should not slow-walk the rulemaking process during the Obama administration's final months, added Conrad Schneider, advocacy director for the Clean Air Task Force.
"There is no reason to delay protecting our climate and the air breathed by communities near the still-expanding oil and gas industry," he said.
Petroleum industry interests said the EPA's plan to regulate existing oil and gas operations was overkill.
"Regulations are really unnecessary window dressing" as industry is already reducing methane emissions, said Frank Maisano, a lobbyist at Bracewell LLP.
The countries will also encourage state and provincial governments to share lessons learned about designing systems to put prices on emissions for carbon markets.
After the U.S. Supreme Court last month ruled to delay implementation of Obama's Clean Power Plan on fighting emissions from power plants, new methane regulations could help Washington meet its pledges made in Paris. Obama has said he believes the plan is on secure legal grounds.
The United States and Canada also agreed Thursday to work to implement the Paris agreement and sign it "as soon as feasible."
They agreed to endorse the World Bank's Zero Routine Flaring initiative to reduce wasteful burning of natural gas at production fields, and to reduce emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are industrial gases with a high potential to trap the earth's heat.
In the Arctic, which acts as an air conditioner for the world but where some of the fastest climate-related changes are occurring, the countries agreed to set standards on shipping, fishing, and oil and gas exploration and development, and to base decisions on scientific evidence.
That development will occur "only when the highest safety and environmental standards are met," the agreement said.
(Additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Frances Kerry)