EPA's Free Pass for Oil and Gas: Another Climate Surrender

As the Amazon and Alaska burn and Hurricane Dorian barrels toward Florida, the Trump EPA issues another climate rollback. We're fighting to block it.

Credit: Source: Clean Air Task Force

Climate change is already causing unprecedented heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, storms, and floods. Today, Hurricane Dorian is barreling down on Florida, and the Amazon, Alaska, and Siberia are on fire. And the world’s climate scientists are telling us it will only get worse unless we cut our net emissions of all heat-trapping pollutants to zero by the middle of this century. 

Instead, the Trump EPA is doing all it can to let every major climate-polluting industry off scot-free. 

Andy Wheeler, the former fossil-fuel lobbyist running Trump’s EPA, today proposed to let the oil and gas industry keep leaking hundreds of thousands of tons of methane from its operations across the country. Methane is an extremely powerful climate pollutant, and the oil and gas sector is its biggest industrial source.

Invisible to the naked eye, methane leakage is revealed by infrared cameras.


AKA Energy Speer Gas Plant, Weld County, CO (July 2019), Source: Earthworks

Together with EPA’s better-known rollbacks on power plants and cars, today’s proposal marks another retreat in the battle to prevent climate catastrophe. 

NRDC is already in court to block these rollbacks, and we’ll fight this one too.

EPA's acting clean air chief told the Wall Street Journal: “I don’t see that there’s going to be some big climate concern here.”

That's just plain false, and we'll tell you why here.

Why methane?

Methane is the second most important climate pollutant, after carbon dioxide. Pound for pound, it packs 36 times the heat-trapping wallop of CO2 over 100 years, and 87 times more over 20 years (global warming potentials, IPCC, p.714). And methane levels in the air are on the rise

While methane comes from many sources, emissions from the oil and gas sector are the largest and most easily curbed. The oil and gas system, pictured below, is the nation’s third largest climate polluter, after vehicles and power plants, according to EPA. 

And EPA’s oil and gas emission numbers, derived mainly from industry sources, are chronically underestimated. A research team led by the scientists at the Environmental Defense Fund estimated the oil and gas system emitted 13 million metric tons of methane in 2015, 60 percent more than EPA’s figures. Accounting for the growth in oil and gas production since then, the Clean Air Task Force calculates that methane emissions rose to 15 million metric tons in 2018. Using methane’s 20-year global warming potential, that’s equivalent to more than 1.3 billion metric tons of CO2, the annual carbon pollution from 335 coal-fired power plants.

To avert the worst impacts of climate change, we must swiftly transition beyond gas, or burn it only with carbon capture and storage. 

In the meantime, we must make sure that companies still exploiting gas drill for it, move it to market, and use it without leaking it into the atmosphere. That’s what’s at issue here.

As a first step, EPA could cut this leakage by more than half in just a few years, by issuing methane standards under the Clean Air Act, according to the 2015 report Waste Not by the Clean Air Task Force, NRDC and Sierra Club.

Clean Air Act requirements and Obama-era actions

Like it does for other industries, the Clean Air Act gives EPA the responsibility to curb methane pollution from oil and gas operations. 

Two Supreme Court decisions confirm EPA’s responsibility to curb climate-changing air pollution. Massachusetts v. EPA held in 2007 that “air pollutant” includes carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases. And in American Electric Power v. Connecticut the Court concluded in 2011 that Section 111 of the Clean Air Act “speaks directly” to controlling industrial sources of climate-changing pollutants. 

Section 111 is the same part of the Clean Air Act at issue in EPA’s repeal of the Clean Power Plan. There the Trump EPA conceded an obligation to set some standard for existing power plants but issued only a do-nothing replacement, the so-called Affordable Clean Energy rule, to fill the space. For oil and gas, however, EPA proposes repealing the current methane standard for new sources and never curbing methane from the industry’s much more numerous existing sources. 

Here’s what Section 111 requires for climate-changing air pollutants:

  • Step 1:  EPA identifies industries—“categories” of sources—whose emissions “contribute significantly” to dangerous air pollution.   
  • Step 2:  EPA sets federal performance standards for new and modified (i.e., expanded) sources in each such industry, reflecting the best system of air pollution controls and taking into account health and environmental risks, control costs, and other factors. 
  • Step 3:  EPA then curbs the emissions from the industry’s existing sources, through a combination of federal performance standards and state implementing plans. 

Because the bulk of pollution from each industry comes from its existing sources, step three—the rule for existing industry—is by far the most important.

Following the Massachusetts decision, the Obama EPA determined in 2009 that carbon dioxide, methane, and four other pollutants endanger our health and well-being by driving heatwaves, storms, flooding, rising seas, and other impacts of climate change. The federal court of appeals in Washington rejected challenges to the endangerment finding by the coal industry and its allies, and the Supreme Court refused to hear their appeal. 

Obama’s EPA took the second step in 2016 by issuing methane standards for new sources in the oil and gas industry category. EPA defined the category to include oil and gas wells, gas processing plants, pipelines and compressor stations, and storage facilities. (In other words, the whole system pictured above, except for local distribution.) In the 2016 rule EPA specifically found that the methane emissions from this entire category contribute significantly to climate change. (Wheeler’s new proposal claims otherwise, but read page 35,833 of the 2016 rule for yourself.)

The 2016 rule then set standards to cut methane emissions from intentional flaring and from leaking valves, pumps, tanks, and other equipment. The rule included simple and inexpensive “leak detection and repair” requirements—companies must inspect their facilities for leaks at least every six months and fix those leaks within 30 days. 

In 2016 EPA projected that these rules—even though they cover just new sources—would cut annual methane emissions by 300,000 tons in 2020, rising to 510,000 tons in 2025. (From here on I have switched from metric tons to short tons, the unit of measurement EPA uses.) Using its 20-year global warming potential, 510,000 tons of methane is equivalent to more than 44 million tons of CO2—the annual emissions of more than 10 coal-fired power plants.

The new source standard triggered the obligation to take step three, regulating the industry’s existing facilities, which account for the vast bulk of its methane leakage. EPA committed to get that done in 2017, with a goal of cutting the industry’s overall emissions 40-45 percent by 2025. That was less than our 2015 report recommended, but still a substantial start. 

Alas, the Trump administration had different ideas. 

Or should I say, different impulses. Above all, the impulse to roll back Obama-era pollution limits, including those on oil and gas. 

Clown-car rollback attempts

Trump’s EPA administrators—first Scott Pruitt and now Andy Wheeler—have tried multiple ways to evade their Clean Air Act duty curb the industry’s harmful methane emissions.  

The biggest prize for fringe climate deniers would be to reverse the underlying endangerment finding, but Pruitt and Wheeler knew that would have no chance in the courts, especially since the scientific support for it keeps getting stronger

So they tried other gambits. These early efforts were improvised, half-baked, and so far unsuccessful.

Pruitt tried in early 2017 simply to “stay”—suspend—the agency’s new source standard without any public notice or participation. This blatantly illegal act was slapped down in record time by the federal court of appeals in Washington. 

Pruitt tried to stay the standards again, this time going through the motions of taking public comment. The proposal relied on anonymous industry claims that the standards were too difficult to meet. 

But industry compliance reports—which state officials and environmental groups obtained through the Freedom of Information Act—showed that companies were, in fact, complying. The monitoring and repair program is so simple and straightforward that no one was actually breaking a sweat carrying it out. So Pruitt’s second try died a quiet death.

Last year, Wheeler tried again, proposing to cut the frequency of leak monitoring in half (companies would have to check their equipment only once a year instead of every six months) and to double the time allowed for companies to fix leaks (two months instead of one). That proposal hasn’t been finalized either. 

Once more, with feeling

Now Wheeler has unveiled the fourth and most sweeping proposal: to entirely repeal the methane limits already in place for new oil and gas sources and to give existing operations a permanent pass.  

The current proposal reads like a bad play, in three acts.  

Act I: Eliminating “Duplication.” The EPA proposal claims the 2016 methane standard is "redundant" or “duplicative” of a 2012 standard for another pollutant—volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  EPA says the VOC controls also catch methane, and that makes the methane standard unneeded.

That is doubly untrue. The VOC standard doesn’t catch as much methane from new sources as the methane standard, and it doesn’t catch any methane at all from existing sources. Let’s take those in reverse order.

Act I, Scene 1:  Even if the VOC standard did as good a job curbing methane from new sources—and it does not, see below—repealing the methane standard would let the industry off the hook for curbing emissions from its existing sources. As already explained, the methane standard for new sources triggers EPA’s legal obligation to curb the even larger amount of methane coming from existing sources. The VOC rules, EPA says, do not.  

You see, EPA regulates existing sources of VOCs only under another part of the Clean Air Act that addresses ozone smog. Those requirements apply only in areas of the country with unhealthy levels of ozone smog (or areas directly upwind). As Andy Wheeler is perfectly aware, the vast majority of the nation’s oil and gas operations are located outside those ozone smog areas. So smog requirements will do nothing to cut the bulk of the industry’s methane emissions, which come from existing sources located where those smog requirements don’t apply.

Presto! By repealing the new source methane standard, Wheeler is trying to erase his obligation to regulate methane from existing oil and gas sources. And bulk of the industry’s climate pollution would go scot-free. 

EPA offers a trio of lame excuses: that existing sources will eventually be taken care of by voluntary industry programs, state standards, and turnover of old equipment. But only some companies have voluntary programs, only a few states regulate, and old equipment will take many years to turn over. None of these is a valid reason for EPA not to do its job.

Act I, Scene 2: Even if you look only at new sources, the methane standard does more than the VOC standard. Wheeler’s proposal to rely only on the VOC standard would allow much more methane pollution even from new equipment.

The reason is simple: The methane standard curbs emissions from more equipment and operations, further down the line, than the VOC standard. 

Here’s why: The raw gas stream that comes out of the ground is a mixture of chemicals, including smog-causing VOCs and methane. Processing plants (the second column in the figure above) separate out other chemicals and send a nearly pure stream of methane (commercial-grade natural gas) further down the line. 

So leakage from equipment from the wells to the processing plants is a mixture of VOCs and methane. But what leaks from equipment farther down the line is almost purely methane. Because there are virtually no VOCs in the gas stream further down the line, the VOC standard doesn’t apply beyond the processing plants. And because it doesn’t apply, it does nothing to curb leaking methane further downstream.

EPA’s own rule acknowledges that the VOC standard won't curb as much methane as the standard it proposes to repeal. EPA's own fact sheet rats the agency out, admitting that "[T]he total cost savings reflect ... the forgone value of natural gas that would not be recovered as a result of those changes."   

Plainly, the current methane standard is not “duplicative” or "redundant" even for new sources. Wheeler knows this. So he trots out a different trick: Let’s redefine the “category.” 

Act II:  Redefine the Category.  As mentioned, in 2016 EPA designated the whole oil and gas industry—from the well pad through storage facilities—as one industrial category. (Again, don’t take my word for it; read page 35,833 of the 2016 rule.)

Now Wheeler is proposing to slice the industry up and declare the segments to be independent “categories.” So now there would be a production-and-processing category (from the well to the processing plant). There would then be a separate transmission and storage category (for pipelines taking gas from there to market and storing it until needed). Indeed, transmission and storage could be deemed two separate categories—the proposal does not expressly say. 

Wheeler is hoping this helps cover up repealing the limits on methane leaks from new equipment located downstream of the processing plant. He hopes we won’t notice the sleight of hand as he shifts that equipment into another category, which he does not propose regulate now. Well, sorry, Andy, we saw what you did there. 

Wheeler also hopes cutting the industry into smaller pieces will raise the hurdle for a future administrator to regulate the transmission and storage segments. Under his proposal, regulating transmission and storage would require making a new “contributes significantly” finding—possibly even one such finding for transmission and another for storage. 

Act III: Raise the Hurdles. Wheeler asks for comment on what it should take to find that industry segments “contribute significantly” to climate change. The proposal asks, in various ways, how small the categories can be defined, and how big a share of climate pollution they must account for in order to trigger regulation.

This is like watching Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Honey, I Blew Up the Kid at the same time.

First, make the kids smaller. Second, make the chairs bigger. And leave the rest for a third movie that might never get made.

And here’s where EPA’s new proposal could have its widest reach. By slicing industries into pieces, and at the same time raising the bar for finding a significant contribution, EPA could have a way to give a free pass on climate pollution to other big industries. I’m sure the oil refiners, chemical producers, iron and steel companies, and others are watching very closely.

* * *

In short, if Trump’s lieutenants at EPA succeed, we will be left with do-nothing standards for power plants and vehicles, no limits at all on the methane from oil and gas, and new hurdles for curbing climate pollution from other industries.

This runs counter to everything we have learned about avoiding climate catastrophe. Remember, the world’s climate scientists are telling us we have to cut our net emissions of all heat-trapping pollutants to zero by the middle of this century. 

The Clean Air Act is the most powerful tool on the books for getting on the pathway to that goal. NRDC will take every legal step at our disposal to keep the Trump EPA from destroying that tool and surrendering on climate. 

Related Blogs