NRDC and Partners Go to Court on EPA's Methane Surrender

As enormous fires engulf the West and hurricanes pummel the South, we're taking Trump's EPA to court to stop the agency from rolling back standards to keep the oil and gas industry from leaking millions of tons of methane from its operations across the country.
Credit: Source: Clean Air Task Force

As enormous fires engulf the West and hurricanes pummel the South, Andrew Wheeler, the former oil and gas lobbyist running Trump's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has taken another step to let climate-polluting industries off scot-free—this time by rolling back standards to keep the oil and gas industry from leaking millions of tons of methane from its operations across the country. Methane is an extremely powerful and fast-acting climate pollutant, and the oil and gas sector is its biggest industrial source.

NRDC is going to court today, with environmental and state partners, to stop this dangerous rollback in its tracks. We're asking the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., for an order blocking Wheeler's rollback from going forward—to vacate the rule immediately or issue a stay (like an injunction) pending judicial review.

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

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

Methane is the second-most important climate pollutant after carbon dioxide. Pound for pound, it packs 87 times the heat-trapping wallop of carbon dioxide over 20 years. 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 the EPA. 


And the 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 the 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. 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.

The EPA could cut this leakage by more than half in just a few year, by keeping its Clean Air Act standards for methane pollution new sources and adding standards for methane from existing sources.

Here's what the Trump EPA has done.

Clean Air Act requirements and Obama-era actions

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

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

  • Step 1: The EPA identifies industries—“categories” of sources—whose emissions “contribute significantly” to dangerous air pollution.
  • Step 2: The 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: The EPA then curbs the emissions from the industry’s existing sources, through a combination of federal performance standards and state implementing plans. 

The EPA accomplished steps one and two during the Obama administration and was started on step three. 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, Obama's 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. 

The EPA took the second step in 2016 by issuing methane standards for new sources in the oil and gas industry category. The agency 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, the EPA specifically found that the methane emissions from this entire category contribute significantly to climate change. 

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 three to six months, depending on the equipment type, and fix those leaks within 30 days. 

In 2016, the 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 per year in 2025. (From here on I have switched from metric tons to short tons, the unit of measurement the 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. The 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 what's technically and economically feasible now, but still a substantial start. 

Trump EPA's Rollbacks

Alas, the Trump administration had different ideas—above all, to roll back Obama-era pollution limits, including those on oil and gas. Trump's first EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, tried in early 2017 simply to suspend the 2016 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. 

Now Wheeler has issued a sweeping repeal of the methane limits already in place for new oil and gas sources and a permanent pass for existing operations.

Wheeler's rollback wobbles on three shaky legs.

(1) Redefine the Category. In 2016, the EPA designated the whole interconnected oil and gas industry—from the well pad through storage facilities—as one industrial category. 

Now Wheeler has sliced the industry up, declaring the "upstream" and "downstream" segments to be independent “categories”—a production-and-processing category (from the well to the processing plant), and a transmission and storage category (for pipelines taking gas from there to market and storing it until needed). 

Wheeler offers two flimsy reasons for dividing things up. First, he claims the "composition of the gases" is different in the two segments. But the difference is irrelevant, because both segments contain—and leak—massive amounts of methane. The raw gas stream that comes out of the ground is mostly methane, though it contains a mixture of other chemicals, including smog-causing VOCs and methane. Processing plants (the second column in the figure above) separate out other chemicals and send a much purer stream of methane (commercial-grade natural gas) further down the line.

Both segments leak methane. The upstream segment leaks VOCs and hazardous pollutants too. How can this be a reason to divide the category for purposes of regulating methane—still less for deregulating the downstream segment entirely? Sorry, Andy, we saw what you did there. 

(2) Eliminate Methane Standard as "Redundant.” Wheeler's rule claims the 2016 methane standard is "redundant" of a 2012 standard for another pollutant—volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The 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.

Repealing the methane standard lets the industry off the hook for curbing emissions from its existing sources. As already explained, the methane standard for new sources triggers the EPA’s legal obligation to curb the even larger amount of methane coming from existing sources. The VOC rules do not.  

The 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 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.

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.  

The EPA claims 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 claims is backed by any data and none is a valid reason for the EPA not to do its job.

Even if you look only at new sources, the EPA admits that the VOC standard doesn't do as much as the methane standard. That's partly because both standards used to apply to the downstream segment too. Now neither does. And the EPA admits that allows more methane and VOC pollution even from new equipment.

The EPA's own rule rats the agency out, with a table showing that the weakened rule will lead to 400,000 tons more methane, and corresponding amounts more of VOCs and hazardous pollutants, over the next decade, just from new sources. And the rule also admits that “EPA expects that the forgone VOC emission reductions may also degrade air quality and adversely affect health and welfare effects associated with exposure to ozone, particulate matter … and [hazardous air pollutants].” 

Plainly, the 2016 methane standard was not "redundant," even for new sources. Sorry Andy, we saw what you did here too.

(3) Raise the Hurdles. Wheeler's rule also raises the bar for regulating climate pollutants. In 2016, the EPA found that the oil and gas industry's methane emissions "contribute significantly" to the dangers of climate change. The current rule says the old finding wasn't good enough. What are the new criteria? Wheeler says: "I'll tell you later," in future rule that he won't even start developing—maybe—until next year at the earliest.

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. 

We saw that move too.

Here’s where the EPA’s new rule could have its widest reach. By slicing industries into pieces, and at the same time raising the bar for finding a significant contribution, the agency 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 the 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 is going to court today to keep Trump's EPA from rolling back the methane rule and surrendering on climate.