Two small oil and gas operators testifying before a House subcommittee against EPA’s new methane fee Wednesday had more in common than their vocations: Their prepared remarks were both at least partially co-authored by the same oil lobbyist.
While it’s not uncommon for industry representatives to assist with congressional testimony, collaboration between each of the witnesses and the same industry heavyweight could complicate an argument Republicans reiterated throughout the hearing that these witnesses should not be lumped in with the industry monolith so frequently vilified by Democrats.
“These companies are not ‘Big Oil,’” declared Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment, Manufacturing and Critical Minerals. “On average they employ just 12 people, and this suite of methane regulations will crush these producers.”
Johnson presided over a hearing to probe alleged “EPA overreach” in its new rule that would compel producers to upgrade equipment and proactively search for existing methane leaks — mandates critics contend are unworkable.
The first portion of the hearing featured Joe Goffman, the acting head of the EPA air office who has been awaiting Senate confirmation since March 2022 to serve in the role in an official capacity.
Later, lawmakers heard from a trio of small oil and gas operators, including Michael Oestmann of Tall City Exploration and Patrick Montalban of Montalban Oil and Gas Operations, who bemoaned the ways in which the new regulations would do more harm than good.
Portions of their prepared remarks, which were submitted to the Energy and Commerce Committee and posted online earlier this week, were nearly identical.
“While oil demand is still strong and will be for decades … it seems clear that a direct result of the implementation of these rules will be to ship jobs, revenue, and a key source of supply to many of our adversaries who, ironically, cause much more environmental harm by their production process than U.S. producers,” Oestmann wrote in one part of his testimony.
Montalban used similar rhetorical flourishes: “By shutting down the small producers while oil demand is high, and will be for decades, will result in shipping jobs, revenue, and a key source of supply to many of our adversaries –who ironically, cause much more environmental harm by their production process than US producers.”
Elsewhere, Oustmann wrote, “I understand the need for addressing environmental protection while achieving economic success in oil and gas production, but there is a right way and a wrong way to approach the issue.”
Montalban said, “I would welcome the opportunity to work with this committee and anyone else who is interested in working to find a constructive way forward to balance environmental protection with economic success. … But there is a right way … and there is the wrong way: this administration’s approach.”
The metadata for the PDF files of the testimony posted to the Energy and Commerce Committee website revealed Christopher Kearney, an oil and gas lobbyist with the Ferguson Group, was the “author” of both.
Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats quickly seized on the connection.
“Republicans have been parroting fossil fuel industry talking points for years, and the fact an oil and gas lobbyist wrote near-identical testimonies for two of their witnesses today is just the latest example of how embedded they are with their polluter friends,” a spokesperson for panel Democrats said in a statement to E&E News.
“It’s no wonder so many Americans think Republicans are more interested in protecting corporate interests than theirs,” the statement said.
‘I believe all that’
Kearney is a former Interior Department staffer under President George W. Bush and a former Republican aide on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He has numerous energy industry lobbying clients, including the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers and the Southern California Public Power Authority.
He also has connections to both Oestmann and Montalban. Oestmann is a longtime member of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, according to the biography he submitted prior to Wednesday’s hearing, which has been a client of Kearney’s since 2020. The organization paid the Ferguson Group $120,000 in 2022, the most recent full year for which disclosures are available.
Montalban is the vice chair of the National Stripper Well Association, another client of Kearney’s going back to 2020. The group paid Ferguson $50,000 in 2022. Ferguson has not disclosed lobbying for either witness’ company.
Montalban and Kearney did not respond to requests for comment from E&E News on Wednesday, but Oestmann confirmed in an interview Wednesday evening he was initially connected to Kearney through the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, which reached out to see if he would be willing to testify before Congress on the methane fee.
Once Oestmann agreed to participate, Kearney sent him a Microsoft Word document with talking points. Oestmann kept some of the language provided but also incorporated his own before submitting the remarks to the Committee. He only realized earlier this week that part of his testimony and Montalban’s were strikingly similar.
Oestmann said he asked Kearney about the similarities and that Kearney replied he had, in fact, sent both men the same talking points, as he represents the Permian Basin Petroleum Association and the National Stripper Well Association, Montalban’s affiliation.
But Oestmann said he stood by what he had written: “I believe all that with all my heart.”
A Republican aide for the Energy and Commerce Committee said it was “disappointing that Democrats are trying to distract from their bad policies by disrespecting hard-working Americans and their perspectives. These kinds of tactics could discourage others from coming forward to defend their businesses and stand up for their communities.”
In prepared remarks during the hearing, Montalban cautioned that an inability to comply with the new regulations of EPA’s methane rule could hurt his company’s bottom line, which in turn could diminish its ability to put revenue towards funding local scholarships and assisting neighboring tribes.
“I am on the front lines of ensuring a stable domestic energy supply and fighting back against threats to that supply. That is what I have spent my career doing and will continue to do,” Montalban said.
He added, “We are a small independent family-owned company. So, why is the current administration so clearly trying to make it hard and expensive for small operators to stay in business and produce the oil and natural gas that this country will need for decades to come?”
Extended questioning of Oestmann and Montalban regarding what effects the EPA methane rule would have on small producers was preceded by nearly three hours of sharp questioning of Goffman, who was poised to be confirmed by the Senate this week but is facing another delay due to lawmaker absences.
Johnson and committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) made clear they hold Goffman accountable in his acting role for presiding over a key agency office that is on track to finalize as many as 120 new rules before the year’s end.
At one point, Rodgers asked pointedly why there have been no internal audits to determine “how much is spent on EPA air-related activities, including the methane requirements” — a dig at the agency’s sprawling, and potentially costly, regulatory agenda.
She asked Goffman if he had visited “small and rural communities … and talked with energy workers” to determine what impact the new rule would have on “schools and hospitals.”
Goffman replied he and his colleagues “spent a lot of time talking to various companies and other stakeholders” in formulating the new rule, to which Rodgers responded sharply, “I would encourage you to go visit one.”
Johnson, who noted this would be the last hearing he would preside over before leaving Congress to become the next president of Youngstown State University, told Goffman it was clear the methane fee being formulated by the Biden administration was actually a “natural gas tax” that would drive up energy costs and while “Americans … are freezing to death.”
Johnson has backed a bill, H.R. 1141, advanced by subcommittee member August Pfluger (R-Texas), which would repeal the methane fee contained in the Inflation Reduction Act.
The two Republican lawmakers and others on the committee also questioned whether EPA was offering meaningful and accurate guidance and cost estimates as oil and gas producers scramble to adhere to the new mandates for curbing the dangerous planet-warming pollutant.
As GOP members largely adhered to their party line, Democrats stuck by theirs, praising the Inflation Reduction Act for setting the gears in motion for the methane fee to come to fruition.
Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), a self-styled moderate dealmaker who prides himself on looking for ways to bring Republicans to the table to talk about climate action, allowed himself a moment to vent frustration at the other side of the aisle.
“I would think by now you would understand I really want to work on this in a bipartisan way, and this is what I get: not a discussion about how to get better regulations, how to do it more efficiently, how to make sure small producers can comply, but the idea that we should just get rid of the regulation entirely,” Peters said, directing his comments at Republicans.
“I’m willing to sit here and figure out how to make that happen,” he continued, “[but] please don’t tell me to do nothing.”