Scott Pruitt is continuing his relentless assault on public health and a stable climate as Administrator of Donald Trump’s EPA. Acting at the behest of corporate polluters, Pruitt announced on Tuesday that EPA would reconsider, and delay by 90 days, critical safeguards to prevent methane leaks from the oil and gas industry. Methane is a powerful climate disruptor that is 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide while it remains in the atmosphere. The oil and gas industry is the one of the largest sources of this pollution in the United States. In addition to methane, leaky oil and gas infrastructure emits smog- and soot-forming pollution, as well as air toxins such as benzene, a known carcinogen. Oil and gas extraction and transportation thus contributes not only to harmful climate change, but increases pollution that causes asthma attacks, bronchitis, heart attacks, emergency room visits and hospital admissions, missed school and work days, cancer, and premature death.
In 2016, after years of advocacy by citizens harmed by oil and gas pollution and environmental and citizen advocacy groups, EPA finally adopted standards to limit methane pollution from new and modified oil and gas equipment, including requirements that operators periodically monitor and repair leaks at well sites and downstream compressor stations. EPA anticipated that the standards would reduce methane emissions by 300,000 tons annually by 2020 and 510,000 tons annually by 2025, with the majority of these reductions resulting from the leak detection and repair (“LDAR”) program. In addition, the program reduce dangerous smog- and soot-forming pollution by hundreds of thousands of tons and hazardous air toxins by thousands of tons each year—a major win for public health.
In developing these safeguards, the previous administration conducted a rigorous outreach process, receiving and incorporating feedback from over 900,000 public comments it received. The final set of standards also allowed industry operators a full year’s grace period before having to comply with the LDAR program, which was slated to take effect in early June. That’s why Pruitt’s stalling tactic is so galling: industry has had more than enough time to prepare for these requirements, and had multiple opportunities to register any objections to the program, including a two-and-a-half-month window to submit formal comments.
Perhaps the most disturbing piece of all is the fact that Pruitt’s decision to delay the standards on behalf of his close ally, the oil and gas industry, is illegal. EPA may delay a finalized rule to reconsider it only if the objecting parties had lacked an opportunity to raise their concerns during the public comment period. Trump’s Administrator is attempting to justify his illegal delay of the LDAR program on two grounds, both of which are baseless. First, he claims that industry groups lacked an opportunity during the public comment period to object that lower-producing wells should be exempt from LDAR requirements. But EPA specifically solicited comment in its proposed rule on whether the agency “should include low production well sites for fugitive emissions and if these types of well sites are not excluded, should they have a less frequent monitoring requirement.” In response, industry parties offered detailed remarks on this issue in their comments to the agency.
Second, Pruitt alleges that industry had no chance to comment on the procedures for receiving approval to use alternative technologies to detect leaks. Yet the American Petroleum Institute—the primary industry party to discuss this issue in its reconsideration request—did comment extensively on this topic in its comments on the proposed rule. Furthermore, API’s request does not even ask for reconsideration on either this issue or the low production well exemption: even the oil industry’s major trade group realizes that reconsideration on these points is inappropriate. Pruitt’s justifications to delay the LDAR program simply fall flat.
In truth, it’s not surprising that Pruitt is playing fast and loose with both the law and the facts. After all, this is the guy who sued EPA 14 times as Attorney General of Oklahoma, each time arguing to eviscerate environmental and public health protections on behalf of the fossil fuel industry. He’s the guy who denied on national TV that carbon dioxide causes climate change, resulting in an inquiry by EPA’s Office of Inspector General. And he’s the guy who thinks the U.S. should withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, a move that even many big oil and gas companies don’t want. And unfortunately, he’s the guy who’s now in charge of protecting our environment and our health. It’s time that Scott Pruitt learned that when you’re the head of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, your job is to protect the environment and the public from pollution, not to protect the polluters. We plan to make sure he gets that straight.