Taking Trump’s EPA to Court to Stop Methane Pollution

NRDC and partners went to court Monday to block the Trump EPA’s illegal suspension of critical Clean Air Act safeguards against leaks of methane and other dangerous air pollution from the oil and gas industry. This is NRDC’s first lawsuit to stop President Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt from dismantling vital climate and clean air protections adopted under President Obama. 

Tim Hurst, Flickr

One year ago, EPA established standards to cut leaks of methane and other pollutants from oil and gas wells, pipelines, compressor stations, storage tanks, and other equipment in this heavily-polluting industry. The standards were to cover some 18,000 oil and gas wells drilled since 2015. The most important provisions—requiring companies to monitor their equipment for leakage and to fix leaks found—were finally to take effect on June 3, 2017, after a one-year grace period that EPA gave companies to prepare for compliance.

The standards would have brought long-sought protection and relief to tens of thousands of Americans living near these oil and gas wells, who now suffer from smog, soot, and cancer-causing pollution. And they would have brought long-overdue reductions in heat-trapping methane emissions from companies responsible for more climate-changing pollution than any industrial sector other than power plants.

But EPA Administrator Pruitt—well known for his cozy ties to the oil and gas industry as Oklahoma attorney-general—snatched these protections away at the last minute, by issuing a “stay” that suspends the rules and lets companies off the hook for 90 days. He also revealed plans to extend their Get-Out-of-Compliance-Free-Card indefinitely—probably as a prelude to repealing the methane standards altogether. 

Not if we can help it. 

NRDC, together with five other environmental groups, filed suit Monday morning within hours of the publication of Pruitt’s move. We’re asking the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington to act quickly—to issue its own stay to block EPA’s illegal suspension of the methane rules. 

The legal papers are here. Our partners include the Clean Air Council, Earthworks, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Environmental Integrity Project and the Sierra Club​.

To get legal-nerdy for a moment, Pruitt or any other EPA administrator has the right to review and propose changes in existing clean air regulations. But he must follow the same process to change or repeal a regulation as it took to create the rule. He must issue a proposal explaining the change he wants to make, hold public hearings and take public comment, and then issue a final decision showing how the new action complies with the Clean Air Act, and how it is supported by the factual record of technical, scientific, and economic data. Then he must defend his action in court if challenged.

What Pruitt cannot do is suspend—shut off—existing regulations before complying with that rulemaking process. He cannot give industry an instant free pass.  

There’s one exception. At the tail end of a completed rulemaking, the administrator can open a proceeding to “reconsider” specific issues if—and only if—the industry demonstrates that it was deprived of the opportunity to comment on an issue of central importance. If the industry makes that demanding demonstration, the administrator may issue a one-time stay of the rule for a maximum of three months while it considers the industry’s late-arising concerns.

This is the provision that Pruitt invoked here. But the fatal flaw in this gambit is that the notice failures Pruitt purports to have found in the prior rulemaking process are trumped up.  In fact, industry had advance notice and every opportunity to give its input on those issues—and in fact industry and others actually did so. In further fact, the American Petroleum Institute admitted when it raised those issues that they don’t qualify to trigger the reconsideration and stay provision.

The stakes for real people’s health are very high.

Leaking oil and gas facilities release smog-forming and cancer-causing chemicals that trigger asthma attacks and increase cancer risks for people living nearby. And they release methane—a heat-trapping pollutant more than 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over the next two decades.

EPA’s leak detection and repair program is pretty simple stuff. Twice a year, each company must use instruments that can “see” the invisible pollutants—including infrared cameras—to identify leaks, which can occur in very large volumes, from the hundreds of valves, pumps, tanks and other equipment at oil and gas wells, as well as in the pipeline network that brings the gas to market.

Then, they must fix any leaks found within 30 days. And check again in 30 days to make sure the leaks are fixed. And report to EPA and the public on the leaks found and fixed.

Finding and fixing these leaks is technically simple, cost-effective, prevents wasted gas, and creates high-paying jobs.   

NRDC and others issued a report in 2014 that shows EPA can cut methane pollution in half, while dramatically reducing other harmful air pollution at the same time, by issuing federal standards for new and existing infrastructure nationwide.

The Court of Appeals is moving quickly to consider our challenge. We filed on June 5th. The court ordered the government to respond in by June 15th, and we’ll complete the briefing on June 20th.  We hope for a decision soon.

Pruitt’s stay of the methane standards is the tip of the spear. Documents on the Office of Management Budget website show that Pruitt plans to extend that stay indefinitely. Pruitt has signaled his intention to review and potentially entirely repeal the methane leak rule. 

And he’s out to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the first-ever limits on the largest source of carbon pollution, and roll back the landmark clean car and fuel economy standards that are on track to cut vehicles’ climate pollution in half and double their mileage.

Pruitt is also trying to roll back the ozone smog health standard, and many other clean air and water protections.

All this comes on top of President Trump’s announcement that he intends to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, a global commitment by 195 nations to combat climate change.  (Fortunately, the withdrawal can’t be completed until after the next presidential election, and the next president can quickly rejoin.)

We are fighting Pruitt and other Trump appointees every step of the way. Our methane lawsuit is our first court challenge to an EPA climate rollback. 

There will be more.

About the Authors

David Doniger

Senior Strategic Director, Climate & Clean Energy Program

Meleah Geertsma

Senior Attorney and Midwest Director, Health Equity and Water

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