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EPA Moves to Revoke Rules on Methane Leaks From Oil and Gas Fields

August 30, 2019 by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration said Thursday that it intends to revoke regulations on methane leaks from oil facilities, a decision even some oil industry giants oppose.

In announcing the plan, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the proposal delivers on President Donald Trump’s directive to remove “unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry.”

“The Trump Administration recognizes that methane is valuable, and the industry has an incentive to minimize leaks and maximize its use,” Wheeler said. “Since 1990, natural gas production in the United States has almost doubled while methane emissions across the natural gas industry have fallen by nearly 15%.”

“Our regulations should not stifle this innovation and progress,” the administrator added.

But in advancing a decision originally revealed in September of last year, the administration is being confronted by opposition from what some might consider an unexpected source — the oil and gas industry itself.

In December 2018, Exxon Mobil Vice President Gantt Walton wrote the agency, saying that while the Texas-based oil giant is interested in finding cost effective ways to regulate greenhouse gases, the administration should maintain existing leak monitoring programs and other enhanced standards.

“We believe the correct mix of policies and reasonable regulations help reduce emissions, further supporting the benefits of natural gas in the energy mix,” Walton wrote. “Overall we are pursuing initiatives that will result in a 15 percent decrease in company methane emissions by 2020.”

The Dec. 17, 2018 letter goes on to describe Exxon Mobil’s efforts to stem greenhouse gas emissions, including launching a program with seven other oil companies in 2017 to facilitate the sharing of best practices to cut methane emissions.

A spokesman for Exxon Mobil said Thursday the company will continue urging the EPA to directly regulate methane emissions from oil and gas facilities.

That sentiment is widespread in the industry. For instance, Royal Dutch Shell has actually been pressing for more stringent standards.

“While the law may change in this instance, our environmental commitments will stand,” Gretchen Watkins, Shell U.S. president, said in a statement Thursday.

Meanwhile, Susan Dio, president of BP America, said in a statement that directly regulating methane emissions and tamping down on leaks is “not only the right thing to do for the environment, there is also a clear business case for doing this.”

The EPA has responded by saying there’s nothing in the proposal rule that prevents private companies from going beyond its requirements.

Still, the administration’s action is the latest in a series of steps to undo Obama-era efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from a number of industries and curb their contribution to worsening climate change.

Among those denouncing the EPA’s proposal outside of the oil and gas industry was California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who said, “as we face a catastrophic climate emergency, now is not the time to go backwards.”

“It is beyond foolish to gut rules that reduce emissions of super pollutants and protect against increased ozone,” Becerra said. “The EPA must get back to its mission of protecting our environment and public health, not the profits of corporate polluters. We’re ready to fight this senseless decision by the EPA, whose own scientists have warned against actions such as the one that the agency has announced today. The EPA has made a monumentally stupid decision with this rule, and we have too much to lose to let it go.”

Madeleine Foote, deputy legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters also weighed in, saying “Trump and Wheeler’s latest proposal is so bad even the oil companies don’t want it.”

“Weakening these clean air safeguards will result in the release of more methane pollution–a potent contributor to climate change–at a time when we need to be moving toward cleaner sources of energy,” Foote said. “There couldn’t be a more tone deaf response from this administration on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and as more extreme, climate-fueled storms continue to build off our coasts and threaten our communities.”

Methane, the main component of natural gas, frequently leaks or is intentionally released during drilling operations. It traps far more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, doing 25 times the damage over the long term despite surviving for less time, according to the EPA.

The oil and gas industry is the nation’s primary source of methane emissions, according to the EPA, accounting for nearly one-third in 2016.

The agency is co-proposing two actions. In its primary proposal, the agency would remove sources in the transmission and storage segment of the oil and gas industry from regulation.

These sources include transmission compressor stations, pneumatic controllers, and underground storage vessels.

The agency is proposing that the addition of these sources to the 2016 rule was not appropriate, noting that the agency did not make a separate finding to determine that the emissions from the transmission and storage segment of the industry causes or significantly contributes to air pollution that may endanger public health or welfare.

The primary proposal also would rescind emissions limits for methane, from the production and processing segments of the industry but would keep emissions limits for ozone-forming volatile organic compounds.

These sources include well completions, pneumatic pumps, pneumatic controllers, gathering and boosting compressors, natural gas processing plants and storage tanks.

In an alternative proposal, EPA would rescind the methane emissions limitations without removing from regulation any sources from the transmission and storage segment of the industry.

The Obama administration had cited its legal authority under the Clean Air Act to require companies to detect and stop methane leaks at oil and gas sites. The Trump administration maintains that Obama’s EPA skipped required legal steps in making that decision, and its proposal Thursday seeks public comment on the issue.

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