EPA proposes scrapping Obama-era methane rules

By Niina H. Farah | 08/29/2019 01:58 PM EDT

EPA today unveiled two parallel proposals for how the agency would stop directly regulating methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, slashing controls on the sector’s greenhouse gases.

An oil and gas site burning off methane.

An oil and gas site burning off methane. Tim Hurst/Flickr

EPA today unveiled two parallel proposals for how the agency would stop directly regulating methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, slashing controls on the sector’s greenhouse gases.

EPA would only target volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, from new or modified sources in both plans — a move that would effectively halt any action by the administration to regulate existing oil and gas operations, the largest source of methane emissions from the sector.

Anne Idsal, acting head of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, described the change as "eliminating regulatory duplication," saying the plans would have net benefits of about $10 million per year for the industry.


The agency would amend 2016 New Source Performance Standards on new and modified oil and gas pollution sources, part of a broad push by the Obama team targeting methane releases.

Idsal said, "Our regulations should not stifle innovation and progress," especially when she said the Obama rule "would already provide minimal benefits."

In addition to targeting VOCs, the main proposal would stop regulating the transmission and storage segments of the oil and gas sector altogether.

This includes scrutiny of sources like transmission compressor stations, pneumatic controllers and underground storage tanks.

The agency says the Obama administration should have released an endangerment finding demonstrating these segments of the industry significantly affect public health and welfare.

In an alternative proposal, EPA would simply switch its targeted pollutant to VOCs but maintain regulation across the transmission and storage sections.


An EPA fact sheet stated that the rulemaking’s impact on new and modified sources would result in 370,000 short tons of methane released — the equivalent of 8.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide between 2019 and 2025.

VOCs would also increase by 10,000 short tons, and other hazardous pollutants would go up by 300 short tons over the same period.

While the agency is justifying its plans by arguing that controls on VOCs also control methane, Idsal did not address the proportion of VOCs present compared with methane along the supply chain.

Industry groups have noted that most VOCs are eliminated during gas processing, so there would be little present to regulate anyway in the transmission and storage sections.

Not only would the proposals eliminate the requirement to control methane emissions from a portion of new and modified sources, EPA is arguing it is no longer required to regulate existing sources.

With the current Obama regulation in place, EPA must draft an existing source rule under Section 111(d) under the Clean Air Act.

But by changing the regulated pollutant to VOCs, EPA would no longer be required under the Clean Air Act to draft a rule to regulate all existing oil and gas sources, which make up the vast majority of methane emissions. In its place would be a patchwork system of guidelines and state-level regulations (Climatewire, Aug. 15).

"We are precluded from regulating existing sources, that is the position we are taking," said Idsal in a conference call.

Mixed views from industry

That could be a boon for small producers with wells that produce 15 or fewer barrels of oil per day and that account for 770,000 of 1 million existing sources, according to the Independent Petroleum Association of America. IPAA maintains the regulation poses a heavy financial burden to these producers (Greenwire, Aug. 12).

In a statement, IPAA praised the EPA proposals, saying a combination of state-level rules and existing guidelines for oil and gas in ozone nonattainment areas provide better alternatives for regulating older, smaller wells.

Idsal denied the rule change was meant to benefit any specific type of oil and gas producer. "We are taking a broad view going forward, this is by no means targeted to any segment of the oil and gas industry," she said.

Not all segments of the oil and gas industry have been seeking the rule changes. Major oil and gas companies like Royal Dutch Shell PLC, BP PLC and Exxon Mobil Corp. have come out in support of maintaining the Obama-era guidelines.

Idsal said oil and gas companies that saw a benefit in more stringent controls could continue to implement them. "We don’t preclude anyone from going above and beyond if that’s what they conclude they need to do from a business and compliance standpoint," she said.

‘Exercise in absurdity’

Environmental groups and former EPA officials swiftly condemned the rule change for ignoring climate science and the added risk posed by methane emissions, which have 25 times the heat-trapping capability of CO2 over a 100-year time span.

"This is another example of EPA responding to a subset of companies in a fossil intensive industry to rollback sensible measures that would reduce emissions of methane," Janet McCabe, former acting head of EPA’s air office, said in a statement.

The Clean Air Task Force noted that the Obama administration’s rule had already been in place since its passage in 2016 and had been reducing methane, VOCs and other hazardous air pollutants from the sector.

The environmental group noted the industry had already found regulation of methane from transmission and storage was "highly cost-effective," and reversing course was merely an attempt to allow the sector to ignore the full impact of methane emissions from the sector.

"EPA’s logic here is an exercise in absurdity," said Darin Schroeder an attorney at CATF.

Lauren Pagel, policy director at Earthworks, said the environmental group has used optical gas imaging cameras to track methane emissions and document the impact of unregulated oil and gas industries on local communities.

Pagel noted that some major oil and gas companies had also urged the Trump administration to preserve the 2016 methane rule.

"The proposed elimination of critical national safeguards against oil and gas methane pollution is reckless, and it will impact millions of families living with oil and gas pollution in their backyards," she said in a statement.

Earthjustice vowed to sue the administration to keep the Obama rule in place.

‘Don’t do this’

As expected, the methane rollback earned quick reproach from Democrats on Capitol Hill, who said it would make climate change worse and endanger lives.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) noted that July was the hottest month in recorded history, underscoring the potential damage of increased greenhouse gas emissions.

"The threat of climate change to human life and livelihoods has never been clearer, and yet the Trump Administration is acting to allow an increase in the dangerous emissions which cause it," Beyer said in a statement.

"It should be telling for everyone trying to make sense of this move that even fossil fuel companies think they are going too far," he said.

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, took to Twitter to urge President Trump to "hear the warnings of America’s climate scientists, military, intelligence & national security experts, farmers, economists, doctors, nurses, business leaders, victims of flooding and wildfires, all pointing to threats we face from climate change."

"Don’t do this," he wrote.

New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall, whose state is working on its own methane regulations for its burgeoning oil and gas industry, called the rollback an "affront to New Mexicans."

"We should be strengthening protections for people and the environment from methane, not weakening them," Udall said in a statement.

‘No environmental benefit’

Republicans praised the proposal. Given voluntary methane emission reductions by the oil and gas industry and regulation at the state level, there’s little need for a federal rule, they said.

"The state of Wyoming already regulates methane emissions from oil and gas production," Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said in a statement. "There’s no need for Washington to pile on. I will work with Wyoming to evaluate the Environmental Protection Agency’s new proposal."

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a longtime backer of oil and gas and a former EPW Committee chairman, was slightly more forceful in his praise for the Trump administration’s proposal. The Obama-era methane rule, he said, "had no environmental benefit and created needless costs."

"Methane emissions have continued to decrease by voluntary actions initiated by industry, all while oil and gas production has skyrocketed," Inhofe said in a statement. "With this kind of progress, why would regulation be necessary?"

Reporter Nick Sobczyk contributed.