In a strong signal of its retreat from climate change action, the Trump administration on Thursday halted an effort to gather data from the oil and gas industry that is needed to rein in leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
More than 15,000 owners and operators of oil and gas production or processing facilities had been required to submit information on their equipment and operations to the Environmental Protection Agency under an order finalized by the Obama administration in November. With the first deadline of early January already passed and another submission due in May, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced he was withdrawing that request, effective immediately.
The Obama administration had called the survey "a critical step" in its effort to control methane, the main component of natural gas. Emissions of the odorless, colorless gas have proven nearly impossible to measure at 700,000 well sites and thousands of pipelines and facilities across the country. Although technology for controlling those emissions is readily available for oil and gas operations, industry has resisted.
Getting the exact numbers is particularly crucial to understanding whether the nation's fracking boom will accelerate or could help stall global warming. Although gas-fired power plants release half as much carbon dioxide as coal plants, the extraction, production and transport of natural gas releases unknown amounts of methane.
Last May, the EPA finalized rules for methane at new oil and gas operations and at the same time issued a first draft of a request to collect information from the industry on existing facilities, a massive task. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has such authority; penalties of nearly $100,000 a day are possible for those who fail to comply. Then-EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy noted that there were hundreds of thousands of small sources of leaks, including pumps, storage tanks and processes that the agency didn't know existed. "EPA is learning this industry right now," she said.
Now, Pruitt says he will assess whether the information is needed. Pruitt acted one day after receiving a letter from nine state attorneys general and the governors of Mississippi and Kentucky, expressing concern about the burden posed by the data gathering. "By taking this step, EPA is signaling that we take these concerns seriously and are committed to strengthening our partnership with the states," Pruitt said in a statement.
As Oklahoma attorney general and a leader in the Republican Attorneys General Association, Pruitt was critical of the EPA's actions on methane, submitting a letter in 2011 accusing the agency of overestimating methane pollution from oil and gas operations in his state. A 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the New York Times documented how the letter actually had been written by lawyers for Devon Energy, one of Pruitt's campaign donors.
"This is precisely the kind of cozy collaboration with the worst actors in the oil and gas industry that dogged Pruitt throughout his controversial confirmation process," said Mark Brownstein, vice president for climate and energy programs at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). "If the EPA is going to run away from collecting even the most basic information about oil and gas operations, what does this say about its dedication to protecting air quality and water quality?"
EDF, which spearheaded an $18 million scientific research program on methane in 2011 with funding from the gas industry and foundations, argues that EPA could have begun regulating methane much earlier. Industry strongly opposed action, however, arguing that the agency didn't have enough information to understand its operations and the burden that would be placed on small companies.
The agency twice drafted and collected comments on its request, and extended the deadlines as industry sought, which delayed the effort into the Trump administration. EPA has said that knowing the equipment and operations companies are using is needed to gauge what methane control measures would be reasonable.
"The irony is a year ago the industry was arguing EPA needed more information," said Brownstein. "Today, you have industry making the argument that the information collection is burdensome and duplicative. And the only thing that's changed is the politics."
Lee Fuller, executive vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), praised Pruitt's decision to rescind the methane information collection request, which he said was costly and unnecessary. "IPAA welcomes today's announcement as it brings meaningful relief to independent producers across the nation and demonstrates that creating American jobs and developing U.S. energy is a high priority for the Trump administration," he said in a statement.
The oil and gas industry long has argued that since methane is essentially natural gas, they already have a financial incentive to stop leaks and capture all they can for sale as fuel. The American Petroleum Institute has pointed out that although gas production has increased dramatically due to the hydraulic fracturing boom, methane emissions per unit of energy produced has declined 24 percent since 2005 in natural gas fields.
But the overall amount of methane leaking from oil and gas operations is significant and rising. Emissions reached 9.8 million metric tons in 2014, up 11 percent from four years earlier. That's enough methane to meet all of the natural gas fuel needs of a state the size of Pennsylvania, instead vented to the atmosphere.
Recent scientific studies highlighted the urgency of the methane problem, showing that the EPA had long been underestimating emissions. Those studies helped inform EPA's decision to revise methane emissions numbers upward in its latest greenhouse gas inventory last year, which bumped the oil and gas industry ahead of agriculture as the nation's leading source of methane pollution.
Methane, a short-lived climate pollutant, is 25 to 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping gas, although it doesn't last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide does. The EPA, using the more conservative figure, calculated that methane emissions from the oil and gas industry alone account for 3 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The Obama administration's goal of cutting those methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025 was a key element of the U.S. pledge under the Paris climate accord.