U.S. EPA plans to roll out a suite of rules covering methane emissions from new oil and gas industry operations this spring as part of a broader post-Paris climate agenda, the agency’s acting air chief said this week.
But Janet McCabe indicated the agency is not currently looking into national rules for existing facilities, a key ask of environmentalists in the wake of the massive methane leak from a natural gas storage facility in Southern California.
McCabe said EPA’s role in California was making sure "people are bringing all the appropriate and technical tools." She was responding to a question about whether rules for existing facilities were on the table.
"I think it is an example of why we all need to be working together and with the industry," McCabe said in a Greenwire interview at EPA headquarters, "to make sure that we understand where the vulnerabilities are with these systems and what are the best tools, at what level of government to help make sure they get addressed."
McCabe outlined an aggressive agenda for EPA’s air office in 2016 as President Obama attempts to cement his legacy of fighting climate change before leaving office.
The Obama administration has pledged that the United States will reduce greenhouse gas emissions between 26 and 28 percent by 2025 compared with 2005 levels. In Paris, more than 190 nations agreed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 C.
Implementation of the Clean Power Plan will figure high in the acting air chief’s work this year. Along with the methane rules, EPA is also poised in the first half of the year to finalize greenhouse gas regulations for heavy-duty vehicles, evaluate fuel efficiency standards for light-duty vehicles and finalize a finding that greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes are an endangerment under the Clean Air Act.
McCabe said the Paris agreement didn’t necessarily change her work but rather created a "renewed interest in making sure that we finish the things that are still partway done."
Of the remaining items on the Obama administration’s climate agenda, reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector is getting a sharp look as the potent greenhouse gas continues to leak from Southern California Gas Co.’s Aliso Canyon storage facility in the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles.
The Interior Department is set to soon release rules covering methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing operations on federal lands.
EPA in August issued four proposals targeting methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.
The regulations would require the oil and gas industry to find and repair leaks in new equipment, capture natural gas from the completion of hydraulically fractured oil wells, limit emissions from new and modified pneumatic pumps on well pads, and limit emissions from several types of equipment used at natural gas transmission compressor stations.
EPA also put forth a proposed rule to require gas wellheads that also produce oil to use so-called green completion technology, and a measure to tighten restrictions for wellheads in ozone nonattainment areas. A fourth proposal would limit emissions from operations on American Indian lands.
Activists have used the California leak to call on EPA to extend its proposed methane regulations to existing oil and gas equipment and facilities, arguing that the California incident dramatically highlights the natural gas production and supply chain’s emissions through leaks (Greenwire, Jan. 11).
Dozens of environmental activists Friday protested in front of EPA headquarters, calling on the agency to shut down the Aliso Canyon facility (E&ENews PM, Jan. 15).
McCabe acknowledged that the facility is "not one that is covered by our current rules or by our proposed rules." But she said it was "more other agencies" that are responsible for ensuring that leaks like that don’t happen.
"The situation out there is clearly very, very serious," she said, "and there are a number of agencies at the state level and at the federal level that are focused on working with the company to try to address it."
McCabe said the agency would likely finalize the four proposals for new operations as a package in the spring. EPA will likely finalize a voluntary "methane challenge" program for oil and gas companies to reduce their emissions ahead of the rules, McCabe said.
The proposed program would allow companies with natural gas and onshore oil operations to make and track methane reduction commitments. EPA will name as partners companies that make commitments, allowing them public recognition as methane reduction leaders.
McCabe did not say whether EPA was considering changes to the rules. The agency received nearly 1.3 million comments on the new source performance standards during a public comment period that ended in December.
"We obviously got a lot of input and a lot of it very robust in terms of factual information, because, as you know, there’s a lot of interest and a lot of work being done across the range of stakeholders," McCabe said.
The air chief said the rule would be responsive to that input. "As a general matter," she said, "I don’t think I worked on a single rule at EPA that didn’t respond in a few or a lot of ways to the input that we get."
EPA not capitulating
McCabe, though, suggested the agency would not capitulate to oil and gas industry demands that EPA completely scrap its rulemaking. Recent trends show producers are lowering their methane emissions already through voluntary measures.
The American Petroleum Institute wrote in a December comment that direct regulation of methane was both unlawful and unnecessary because EPA could accomplish the same goals just through the regulation of volatile organic compounds.
"There is no rational basis for taking the wholly discretionary action of regulating methane or GHGs from this part of the oil and natural gas sector," API wrote, "where EPA would achieve no additional methane reductions beyond those achieved through existing VOC standards."
McCabe, however, argued that methane on its own is an air pollutant that endangers public health and welfare.
"It’s always great when you can use the same kinds of approaches to address and reduce multiple pollutants," she said. "But it’s the straightforward and appropriate thing to do for our rules to acknowledge all the air pollutants that are being emitted by these activities and the reductions that you can achieve by them."
After Paris, the oil and gas industry has doubled down on its contention that companies using natural gas can help reduce carbon emissions. Industry has pointed to the United States as a "model" for other countries, linking the increase in domestic gas production in the last several years with reductions in the electricity sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.
McCabe said that the EPA rules stipulating the use of certain technologies can help ensure that natural gas production driven by market forces is developed in a way that is safe for humans and the environment.
"What’s important for people to feel comfortable with is the fact that use of these resources be done in a way that doesn’t harm public health," she said, "and that’s one of the things that EPA regulations can assure."