Trump Targets Obama's Methane Rules in Latest Climate Policy Rollbacks

The changes would weaken requirements for monitoring the potent greenhouse gas and give the oil and gas industry more leeway to waste energy by flaring or venting.

In one proposal, the EPA acknowledged that the methane rule change would mean more air pollution and would come with costs to public health. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Updated Sept. 18 with new Interior Department rule and states' lawsuit in response.

In its latest retreat from federal action on climate change, the Trump administration moved to lift two more rules on the leaking and uncontrolled release of the potent greenhouse gas methane from oil and natural gas operations.

The Interior Department on Tuesday finalized a rule that loosens methane requirements for oil and gas operations on federal lands. It rolls back a regulation that had required the industry to detect and capture methane leaking from oil and gas operations on federal lands and pay royalties on it. The Obama administration had estimated that the fuel being wasted cost taxpayers as much as $330 million a year in lost natural gas royalties.

Within hours of the rule change being finalized, the attorneys general of California and New Mexico filed a lawsuit challenging the move.

"Repealing a rule that is working is just another giveaway to an industry that doesn't need it," California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols said. "It's an attack on public health and continues the administration's dereliction of duty to protect air quality, taxpayer dollars and the environment."

A week earlier, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed changes to a different methane rule, this one targeting all new oil and gas operations on private lands. The change, still at the proposal stage, would save the oil and gas industry a relatively small amount of money, while the EPA acknowledged that it would come with costs for public health as a result of the additional pollution it would allow. The agency said it couldn't quantify the health costs due to "data limitations."

Both moves are part of a wider effort by the Trump administration to erase President Barack Obama's climate legacy. The administration has also been working to repeal the Clean Power Plan rules on power plant emissions, roll back vehicle fuel economy standards, and eliminate a program to curb heat-trapping refrigerant gases, among other programs and regulations.

The EPA proposal targeting new oil and gas operations on private lands would reduce the frequency of monitoring required, would create a number of exemptions to regulation, and would allow the industry to deploy alternative means of reducing methane emissions, including flaring, which emits carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas.

It also would give oil and gas producers greater leeway to waste energy—to burn off or release to the atmosphere methane that instead could be captured and sold as natural gas. But with natural gas prices low, and the industry venturing into areas without the pipeline network to deliver gas to markets, there aren't strong incentives for producers to monitor and plug leaks or to avoid flaring of gas.

The potential consequences of a large increase in venting and leaking would be significant: methane is a short-lived climate pollutant that is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term.

Methane equivalent to 2.3 percent of all the natural gas produced in the nation is already leaking during the production, processing and transportation of oil and gas every year, according to a study published earlier this summer in Science led by scientists from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). That much leaked methane, they said, would have roughly the same climate impact in the short-term as emissions from all U.S. coal-fired power plants.

EPA: This Saves the Fossil Fuels Industry Money

The Trump Environmental Protection Agency characterized the proposal as a "targeted improvements package," saying it was aimed at cutting duplicative red tape. It estimated it would save the U.S. oil and gas industry $75 million per year. The proposed changes would "give the energy sector the regulatory certainty it needs to continue providing affordable and reliable energy to the American people," said EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

The industry says that its leakage rate—the amount of methane leaked per unit of fuel produced—has declined substantially because of voluntary steps that producers have taken. But studies like the EDF research indicate that methane is leaking from oil and gas operations at dangerous volumes, because of booming oil and gas production and past underestimates of leakage.

Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma, whose group represents oil and gas producers, said the original rule "was purposefully designed by the Obama Administration to tie up the American oil and natural gas industry in red tape."

"By fixing the numerous technical problems with the original rule, EPA will enable industry to continue its four-decade success record of reducing methane emissions," she said.

Pruitt Used Delay. Wheeler Tries a Different Tack.

Under former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency originally tried to simply delay implementation of the Obama methane rules—but a federal court ruled that approach was illegal.

The new rulemaking that the EPA initiated this month seeks to address the administrative procedure issues raised by that ruling. The agency will take public comment for 60 days and holding a public hearing in Denver later this fall.

The Sierra Club noted that during the original Obama rulemaking on methane in 2016, the EPA received hundreds of thousands of public comments in favor of the rules, noting that the agency itself as recently as last year said the health danger of allowing increased oil and gas emissions might "have a disproportionate effect on children."

"It is not surprising that this administration chose to ignore the calls of hundreds of thousands of Americans and listen instead to their fossil fuel industry friends," said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, "but that still doesn't comfort the communities across the country that will now breathe dirtier air."