Methane-Deregulation Push Said to Spew Millions More Tons of Gas a Year

A gas flare is seen at a natural gas processing facility near Williston, N.D., on Feb. 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed two rules Thursday that look to further weaken standards for monitoring methane emissions.

The changes would apply to oil and gas wells drilled from 2016 and beyond, allowing an additional 4.5 million metric tons of the gas into Earth’s atmosphere annually. The rule also would eliminate requirements for companies to monitor methane leaks from compressor stations, wells and other facilities.

Wheeler first announced the rules during an event in Pittsburgh with EPA senior administration officials. Though not streamed live, EPA officials later discussed the move in a call with reporters, then released a statement where Wheeler touted deregulation for cutting “burdensome and ineffective regulations for our domestic energy industry.”

“Regulatory burdens put into place by the Obama-Biden administration fell heavily on small and medium-sized energy businesses,” Wheeler said.

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, called it notable that Wheeler’s announcement came from Pennsylvania, the birthplace of America’s oil and gas industry and one of the country’s largest annual methane emitters.

“These rollbacks would have devastating effects on our climate and air quality and will disproportionately damage the wellbeing of more than 9 million Americans who live within half a mile of wells affected by this rollback, including many Americans in our most vulnerable communities,” Krupp said in a statement Thursday.

The rule changes appear in two packages, one “technical” and the other “policy.” The policy package, officials said, establishes the Trump administration’s position that the Clean Air Act required the agency to make a finding defining what sources contributed to air pollution before setting the performance-standard requirements. Trump says Obama made no such finding for methane emissions from the production and processing segments.

Methane produced by volatile organic compounds will continue to be regulated, according to the announcement.

The so-called technical package involves what the EPA terms as “common-sense” changes to performance standards that will benefit small oil and gas operators. One change excludes low-production wells from having to worry about costly monitoring. Another reduces quarterly checks of emissions and leaks to twice a year.

EPA officials said “certain convoluted reporting requirements” will also be removed, purportedly reduces cost burdens on sites by 25%.

The Environmental Defense Fund will “forcefully oppose” the rules in court, Krupp vowed.

“Like so many other administration rollbacks that have already been rejected by the courts, this one ignores the science, the public health impacts and the low-cost solutions we have at hand,” Krupp said. “These sensible pollution controls have been working to protect Americans since 2016. Investors, states, community groups and even leading oil and gas producers have all called on the EPA to retain and strengthen methane safeguards.”

Officials meanwhile called this threat of litigation premature, given that the challengers could not have read the rules yet. Insisting that the data and engineering is on their side, the officials also called it dishonest for challenges against rules to be raised sight unseen.

The EPA has been trying to propose technical changes to the rules since September 2018. In the call Thursday, the officials denied that any part of the rules had changed since the agency released its proposal to weaken methane monitoring last August. 

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