(EnviroNews DC News Bureau) — Washington D.C. — On August 13, 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rolled back methane emission standards for the oil and gas industry, and it’s not the only substance the agency plans to liberate from regulatory control. The rules being rescinded required producers to install technology to monitor wells, pipelines and storage facilities for methane leaks, while obligating companies to plug those leaks within 30 days of detection. Implemented during the Obama Administration, the EPA argued that the rules do not meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act and punish small producers unfairly.
Specifically, the Obama Administration’s 2016 Oil and Natural Gas New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) is under fire, following a Trump-ordered review headed by his appointed EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.
At the Energy Innovation Center in Pittsburgh, PA alongside U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Deputy Secretary Mark W. Menezes, U.S. Congressman Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA), and EPA Mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator Cosmo Servidio, Wheeler announced two new rules that would loosen the requirements for oil and gas producers.
“[The] EPA has been working hard to fulfill President Trump’s promise to cut burdensome and ineffective regulations for our domestic energy industry,” said Wheeler at the press conference.
The first rule, called the “policy package,” removes the transmission and storage segment from the Obama EPA regulation, which the package calls “improper,” and rescinds the regulations for that segment. Methane control requirements for production and processing are also removed for being “both improper and redundant.” The package notes that the same technologies employed to reduce volatile organic compounds (VOCs) also reduce methane. As part of the first rule, Trump’s EPA claims Obama’s EPA did not establish that methane is a “significant” contributor to air pollution and uses that as a reason to remove the methane control requirements.
The second rule, called the “technical package,” reduces the number of times a company has to monitor for leaks to twice a year, turns over regulatory standards to the states, allows repair deferrals if the 30-day standard for repairs “is not technically feasible,” in addition to other streamlining that will make it easier on smaller companies in the oil and gas industry. The EPA plans on publishing its own definition of the word “significant” with the new methane rule that it can then apply to other pollutants in the future.
The EPA’s own research shows the rollback will result in greater emissions regardless of which baseline the agency chooses to use. Under these rules, methane emissions will increase by 350,000 short tons and VOC emissions will increase by 9,700 tons between 2019 and 2025 relative to the 2018 proposed regulatory baseline. If the EPA uses the current baseline, the increase in methane emissions will be even greater, equaling 370,000 short tons while VOCs will increase by 10,000 tons over the same period. If one thing is overtly apparent, it’s that the environmental community won’t allow the rules to stand unchallenged.
“We’ll see them in court because this is blatantly illegal,” David Doniger, Senior Strategic Director of the Climate and Clean Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told the Associated Press.
According to Sen. Angus King (I-ME), Congress could also challenge the rules. Under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), the legislative branch could overturn agency rules that were recently finalized.
“This is a serious national security concern and it’s a serious concern for the future of this country,” King told MSN. “I’ll be surprised if all of my Republican colleagues want to go on record as voting in favor of methane emissions.”
The fossil fuel industry itself is divided on the issue. Larger producers, such as Shell, BP and ExxonMobil, and those who are already exceeding the standards laid down by the Obama EPA are against the regulatory rollbacks and want stricter measures in place to cap methane emissions while smaller producers are happy with the lack of oversight.
“The negative impacts of leaks and fugitive emissions have been widely acknowledged for years, so it’s frustrating and disappointing to see the Administration go in a different direction,” Shell’s U.S. President, Gretchen Watkins, said in a statement.
Some of those “negative impacts” may include infant deaths. In 2014, when the rise of fracking and VOCs in Utah’s Uintah Basin coincided with a rise in stillborn babies, EnviroNews went in search of answers. The investigative report, “Take a Walk on a Leaky Uintah Basin Oil Well with a Whistleblowing Oil and Gas CEO,” left viewers stunned. Editor-in-Chief Emerson Urry toured every major component of a randomly selected Utah oil well with pollution monitoring equipment. As Urry explored the well-site with an anonymous North American oil and gas CEO of 20 years, they used a “gas sniffer” to demonstrate how “every well’s an emitter.”
Methane emissions continue to increase across the globe. In the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters (ERL), scientists point to agriculture, waste, and the fossil fuel sector as the main reasons for the rise in methane in the atmosphere.
“Our increases in the U.S. are coming mostly from oil and gas companies, not because the industry is doing a poor job, but because we’re producing almost twice as much as we were a decade ago,” Rob Jackson told the Huffington Post. Jackson is one of the authors of the study and an Earth scientist who leads Stanford University’s Global Carbon Project.
Methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas, can trap 90 times more heat than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 20-year period. It degrades more quickly than CO2 but is many folds more caustic to the climate. Common sources of methane include leaky oil and gas wells, pipelines, storage areas and the Arctic’s fast-melting permafrost. According to the ERL report, waste management, including landfills, and the agriculture industry also contribute to the problem.