Trump EPA Tries Again to Roll Back Methane Rules for Oil and Gas Industry

The proposed rule change involves leaks of the potent greenhouse gas from new oil and gas wells, storage and pipelines. It also questions EPA's own authority to act.

A Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment oil and gas inspector discusses inspection practices in April 2019. Credit: Joe Amon/MediaNews Group/Denver Post via Getty Images.

Colorado adopted its own rules in 2014 requiring companies to find and fix methane leaks and capture emissions. Here a state Department of Public Health and Environment oil and gas inspector discusses inspection practices. Credit: Joe Amon/MediaNews Group/Denver Post via Getty Images

In its latest retreat from federal action on climate change, the Trump administration on Thursday proposed eliminating federal requirements that oil and gas companies control leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from new wells, storage facilities and pipelines.

In doing so, the Environmental Protection Agency also proposed a narrower interpretation of its legal authority to regulate air pollution from the oil and gas industry.

The agency proposed both rescinding the methane requirements and removing regulation of transmission and storage facilities from its purview under the Clean Air Act. Experts say it's an attempt by President Donald Trump's administration to stymie future regulation of emissions from existing oil and gas operations—a much larger problem than the emissions from new facilities.

In announcing the proposal, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, said the methane regulations were "unnecessary," and he stressed that removing them would save the industry money. Both arguments have been common themes in the administration's long-running effort to roll back environmental protections related to oil and gas industry pollution.

The EPA said it concluded that the industry already had sufficient incentive to stop leaks because methane, the main component of natural gas, can be captured and sold for fuel. But studies have consistently shown that methane is leaking into the atmosphere from oil and gas operations; for some companies, the money they can make from selling low-priced natural gas is not worth the cost of additional monitoring and better equipment.

The EPA acknowledged that its proposal, if adopted, would result in the release of an additional 370,000 short tons of methane annually—equivalent to the emissions of 1.8 million additional passenger vehicles per year.

But the Trump administration has a new method of calculating the harm of climate change that deeply discounts the future costs of that pollution. Using its new method, the EPA concluded that the savings to industry—$17 to $19 million a year—far outweighed the additional costs that methane pollution would create.

In contrast, when the methane rules were put into place during President Barack Obama's final year of office, the agency had calculated their climate benefits at about $690 million a year, far outweighing the additional cost to the industry of implementing additional leak detection and repairs.

EPA's Latest Attempt to Change Methane Rules

The so-called "New Source Performance Standards" for the oil and gas industry were meant to be a key element of the Obama climate legacy—part of a package of actions on methane, a short-lived climate pollutant many times more potent than carbon dioxide, that was crucial to meeting the U.S. commitment under the Paris climate accord.

The new proposal marks the fourth time that the Trump EPA has taken aim at the same set of regulations. After a federal court early on made clear that former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt could not simply suspend the rules, the agency initiated a formal review of the rules. Then, last fall, it proposed weakening them.

The latest plan takes a markedly different approach—eliminating standards on methane altogether.

The Obama rules sought to control methane from all aspects of oil and gas operations, including the transmission and storage facilities where leak rates are believed to be high. But the Trump EPA said the agency had no authority to do this under the Clean Air Act, unless it made an entirely separate formal finding that emissions from transmission and storage facilities were harmful to human health and the environment.

"This proposed approach is a blatant attempt to divide the oil and gas sector into pieces to make it easier for them to ignore the sector's overall methane emissions and allow the sector to operate without EPA oversight," said Darin Schroeder, associate attorney for the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group.

The Trump administration's Interior Department also has rolled back regulations on methane emissions from oil and gas operations on federal land, where leaks also result in the loss of royalties income to the U.S. Treasury, in addition to pollution. That rollback, finalized after efforts by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to shortcut the regulatory process, is now being challenged in federal court in California by environmental groups and states.

Chart: Global Methane Emissions

Wheeler on Thursday repeated figures often used by the oil and gas industry—production has almost doubled since 1990, while methane emissions have fallen 15 percent. "Our regulations should not stifle this innovation and progress," he said.

"Under this proposal, the oil and natural gas sector will continue to be effectively regulated," Erik Milito, vice president of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute, said in a prepared statement. The EPA has proposed keeping in place regulation of smog-producing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from production and processing, which he said "drives down methane emissions and allows for innovation and technological advancements that help environmental performance and strengthen industry's actions to reduce emissions."

But recent research suggests that methane emissions from oil and gas operations are significantly underreported. A study published in the journal Science in 2018 concluded that the amount of methane leaking from the nation's oil and gas fields may be 60 percent higher than official estimates. The authors estimated that methane equivalent to 2.3 percent of all the natural gas produced in the nation is leaking during the production, processing and transportation of oil and gas every year.

Such results underscore the Trump administration's error in concluding that market incentives are sufficient to control fugitive methane emissions in the oil and gas industry, said Peter Zalzal, a lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which was involved in the study.

"Even for the measures that pay for themselves, though, there is evidence demonstrating that companies don't always pursue them," Zalzal said. "Ultimately, the science shows us that oil and gas sector methane emissions are higher than official inventories project; that they can be reduced using low-cost and available technologies; and that voluntary actions haven't made the urgent progress that we need to make in addressing these harms."

Not All Oil and Gas Companies Oppose the Rules

The oil and gas industry has not been unified in its opposition to the methane rules.

Some companies, including BP, have invested in control technology, and have sought to demonstrate its effectiveness in controlling greenhouse gas emissions as they promote natural gas as a fuel that can cut carbon emissions from coal.

"BP has been clear in its position that EPA should directly regulate methane emissions from new and existing sources," the oil giant said in a statement. "We believe this is the most effective way to protect the environment and maximize the benefits of natural gas."

States like Colorado and Pennsylvania have also put in place their own rules to control methane emissions, increasing the complexity for companies that operate in many different locations.

"This is another example of EPA responding to a subset of companies in a fossil intensive industry to roll back sensible measures," said Janet McCabe, who served as acting assistant administrator for the EPA's air office during the Obama administration and is now a senior law fellow at the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Indiana. She said methane is "without a doubt contributing to changes in our climate."

InsideClimate News reporter Sabrina Shankman contributed to this story.

Published Aug. 30, 2019

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