EPA starts sprint to curb methane from existing producers

By Amanda Reilly | 05/12/2016 01:22 PM EDT

U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy vowed today her agency would work in “the most expedited way we can” to issue regulations for reducing heat-trapping methane emissions from existing oil and gas operations.

U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy vowed today her agency would work in "the most expedited way we can" to issue regulations for reducing heat-trapping methane emissions from existing oil and gas operations.

But it won’t be until early next year — as the Obama administration leaves office — that EPA will finish collecting information needed for those rules.

"I think we’ve made it very clear that we are interested in comprehensively and quickly addressing the methane from existing sources," McCarthy said.


EPA will "take action where it can" as information comes to reduce releases of the potent greenhouse gas, she said.

McCarthy spoke as EPA issued a draft two-part "information collection request" (ICR) for methane data from existing oil and gas operations. It’s the first step toward regulating emissions from existing sources.

The first broad request requires approximately 22,000 owners and operators of existing oil and gas equipment to submit within 30 days basic information about their facilities. The second part, due within 120 days, drills down on a smaller subset of owners and seeks information on control technologies, costs and emissions.

The two-part request will be subject to a 60-day comment period, which means it likely won’t be finalized until this fall, McCarthy said. And that, she explained, means information won’t start arriving until fall under the broad request and until early next year under the second part.

The requests will gather information needed to "reduce emissions comprehensively" from the oil and gas industry, McCarthy said.

The key question: To what extent can EPA make progress on a proposal before President Obama leaves office?

"We will not complete the ICR in detail until [early 2017], but we will also continue to get information in as early as the end of this year, and then complete it early next year," McCarthy said. "So we’re going to continue to take action where we can, but we’re going to move as quickly as we can to get the most comprehensive record we can … that the next administration can rely on."

Democratic presidential front-runner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called industry methane limits a top priority (E&E Daily, May 9). But it’s unlikely that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, would pursue methane restrictions if he’s elected.

Environmentalists today were already digging into the timing to judge whether EPA could propose regulations on existing operations under Obama.

Mark Brownstein, vice president of the climate and energy program at the Environmental Defense Fund, said that the first round of data that EPA is seeking will likely confirm "a lot of what they already know" and that the second will be a "gap-filling exercise."

"It’s possible to do a proposed rule and then with additional data do a second proposal," Brownstein said. "There’s nothing here that suggests they couldn’t move forward with an existing proposal based on the information they have."

‘Beefing up’ rules on new operations

Along with issuing the information collection request, EPA today also finalized a suite of rules that targets methane emissions from new and heavily modified oil and gas operations.

The rules comprise Clean Air Act New Source Performance Standards, a source determination rule that clarifies when oil and gas equipment is deemed a single source for permitting regions, and a final federal implementation plan for New Source Review on Native American lands (Greenwire, May 12).

Conrad Schneider, advocacy director at the Clean Air Task Force, said the final rules set up EPA to proceed on existing source rules as required by the Clean Air Act’s Section 111.

"It creates the table setter for EPA to move forward with regulations for existing sources that are responsible for the lion’s share of the methane" emitted by the oil and gas industry, Schneider said. EPA’s most recent inventory found that, in 2014, the oil and gas industry made up about a third of U.S. methane emissions.

Environmentalists praised EPA’s final rules. They contain several changes that Obama climate and energy adviser Dan Utech said make the rule "stronger and more flexible."

Among the changes: the elimination of an exemption for low-producing wells and increased frequency for certain leak detection and repair technology to be used at certain types of equipment.

"We’re beefing up the requirements to actually use some new technologies to make sure that we’re keeping an eye on leaks," McCarthy said.

The rules will reduce methane emissions by 11 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2025, according to EPA.

But the changes that EPA has included in the final regulations make them more expensive: According to EPA, the estimated cost has risen from $420 million to about $530 million in 2025.

Independent Petroleum Association of America Executive Vice President Lee Fuller disputed the administration’s contention that the final rule is more flexible than the proposal.

"Parts of the EPA’s final rules appear to remove flexibilities for producers and could actually undermine industry’s progress," Fuller said. "In particular, the fugitive emissions program largely locks in costly, handpicked monitoring technologies and suppresses the development of other approaches that could be more cost-effective and efficient."

IPAA, the American Petroleum Institute and other industry groups today criticized the potential costs of the regulations and argued that rules for the industry were unnecessary. Industry has long called for addressing methane via voluntary measures instead of rules.

"This is a time when we should be working to leverage our domestic energy resources to continue driving economic growth, innovation and environmental improvement," said Ross Eisenberg, the National Association of Manufacturers’ vice president of energy and resources policy. "Overly prescriptive regulations that limit energy access will only make manufacturers less competitive and send investments and jobs to countries where emissions will be higher."

Environmentalists have argued, though, that the costs are small compared to the benefits. EPA today said that despite the increased costs, the rule will yield net climate benefits of $170 million in 2025.

Earthjustice vowed to defend the rules.

"Earthjustice will defend this rule in court when the oil and gas industry tries to weaken it," Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen said in a statement. "It’s past time for oil and gas companies to embrace best practices that could make the difference between catastrophic climate change and a secure future on a livable planet."