By Adela Jones and Andres Restrepo, Sierra Club
This past June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized a set of crucial updates to its new source performance standards for the oil and gas sector that curb harmful methane pollution from this industry for the first time. Issued under section 111of the Clean Air Act, these safeguards (“the Methane Rule”) limit emissions of both methane and volatile organic compounds from a number of new and modified pollution sources across the oil and gas industry. The Methane Rule is an essential prerequisite for future safeguards to reduce methane from existing pollution sources in the oil and gas sector, which the EPA is expected to propose in 2017. The Rule is therefore an integral component of our effort to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions, improve public health, and mitigate our contribution to global climate change, as we work toward achieving our commitments from the Paris Climate Conference to cut domestic emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025. It is also an indispensable first step in fulfilling the U.S.-Canada joint agreement toslash methane emissions 40 to 45 percent during that same period and in meeting the goals of the Obama Administration’s Climate Action Plan.
That’s why the Sierra Club took action this week to defend the EPA’s Methane Rule. In coalition with a number of other environmental groups, the Sierra Club filed a motion to intervene in a series of lawsuits challenging the Rule brought by oil and gas companies and a group of state Attorneys General. Contrary to these attacks, the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to limit dangerous pollution from large industrial categories such as the oil and gas sector, and the Methane Rule entails common-sense, low-cost methods for limiting emissions, protecting our communities, and cutting back on waste. We are confident that the Court will uphold the Methane Rule in its entirety, and will do everything we can to ensure that it is fully implemented as planned.
What Is Methane and Why Does It Matter?
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that often goes unaddressed by climate change policy. The primary component of gas, methane has a climate-forcing impact that is 87 times more powerful than that of carbon dioxide during the time it remains in the atmosphere. Therefore, although methane constitutes less than one percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by weight, it accounts for nearly 30 percent of the climate disruption caused by those emissions. Methane also poses a threat to human health by interacting in the air with other particles to form ozone, the major ingredient of smog. Ground-level ozone leads to serious lung and heart conditions such as asthma attacks, bronchitis, shortness of breath, heart attacks, and premature death, particularly affecting vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, and low-income communities.
The oil and gas industry is the single largest source of methane in the United States, accounting for over a third of domestic emissions in 2014. As coal production has waned in recent years, the advent of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and other unconventional extraction methods has sharply increased domestic production of gas and oil, making the need for controlling methane from those sources all the more urgent. As just one example of this problem, NASA recently issued a report on the huge methane plume that is now hovering over the Four Corners region of New Mexico, concluding that natural gas extraction is the prime culprit for that pollution.
Furthermore, when methane is leaked or vented from oil and gas sites equipment, it is emitted alongside two categories of co-pollutants: volatile organic compounds (“VOCs”) and hazardous air pollutants (“HAPs”, also known as air toxins). Like methane, VOCs are a precursor to ozone, and also interact in the atmosphere to form fine particulate matter, which causes many of the same heart and lung ailments as ozone. HAPs, such as benzene and formaldehyde, are pollutants that cause serious or acute health conditions like cancer, brain damage, and birth defects. The same measures that control methane from oil and gas equipment also cut back on VOCs and HAPs from many sources, so the EPA’s Methane Rule will provide substantial benefits beyond curtailing methane.
What Efforts Have Been Made Thus Far To Reduce Methane From Oil and Gas Sources?
For years, the Sierra Club has worked with its allies in the environmental community to push for direct controls on methane pollution from oil and gas sources at both the state and federal levels. In response to our advocacy, the EPA updated its new source performance standards for the oil and gas sector in 2012 to address VOC emissions for equipment in certain segments of the gas supply chain. These updated standards did not include direct controls on methane emissions, however, and the Sierra Club and its allies initiated both administrative and legal proceedings to remedy this shortcoming. While these actions were pending, the EPA collected data on methane pollution through the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program and published a series of white papers on this topic, for which the Sierra Club and its coalition partners submitted extensive technical comments.
During this time, individual states began to take action to control oil and gas methane emissions occurring within their own borders. Colorado issued the nation’s first set of comprehensive methane controls for this sector in 2013, and California and Pennsylvania are currently moving forward with their own comprehensive programs. States with important but more limited methane control programs include Wyoming, Ohio, Utah, and North Dakota. Finally, in September 2015, the EPA proposed a draft Methane Rule for new, modified, and reconstructed oil and gas sources. The Sierra Club and its coalition partners provided detailed legal and technical input to the agency, urging it to adopt the most protective safeguards possible. In June 2016, the EPA finalized the Methane Rule, an important step in our fight to slash our greenhouse gas emissions, reduce the impact of climate change, and mitigate threats to our public health from ozone, particulate matter, and toxic air emissions.
What Does The Methane Rule Do?
The formal objective of the EPA’s Methane Rule is to reduce emissions of both methane and VOC from new oil and gas equipment across the supply chain, from the point of extraction down through storage and transmission. The Rule achieves this purpose by establishing specific control practices as well as quantifiable emission limits for various sources, including fracked and re-fracked oil and gas wells, compressors, pneumatic controllers and pumps, and equipment leaks at well sites and compressor stations. The final Methane Rule is projected to curb methane emissions by 510,000 tons by 2025, and VOC and HAP emissions by 210,000 tons and 3,900 tons, respectively. In achieving these benefits, the Rule will limit the enormous quantities of natural gas that are wasted each year through leaking and venting equipment. The EPA estimates that the Rule will generate $690 million in climate benefits alone in 2025, $170 million more than the Rule’s cost of compliance. And these figures do not even account for the significant public health benefits the Rule will produce by reducing levels of ozone, particulate matter, and hazardous air pollutants in the atmosphere.
Industry Lawsuits: A Foregone Conclusion
All told, the EPA’s Methane Rule is a welcome step forward. The Rule is a win for the climate, a win for public health, and a win on waste reduction, all by way of low-cost, sensible emission control techniques. Unfortunately, the oil and gas industry has made it a practice to bring the EPA to court each and every time the agency takes action to clean up oil and gas development, and it’s done exactly that with the Methane Rule. Along with its political allies, Big Oil and Gas want nothing more than to preserve the status quo and keep putting profits in front of people and the climate. These companies should have little to complain about: according to the EPA’s projections, the Rule’s total compliance costs amount to less than one half of one percent of it the nearly $130 billion in revenues that U.S.-based oil and gas companies raked in during 2015 alone. More important, the Rule is not optional: it reflects the EPA’s duty under section 111(b) of the Clean Air Act to limit dangerous emissions from major new sources of pollution. That is why the Sierra Club has intervened in the D.C. Circuit to defend the Methane Rule against industry’s attacks, and why we’re confident the Court will reject those attacks.
Despite its substantial climate and public health benefits, the EPA’s Methane Rule can only be a starting point: limiting emissions from new sources is not nearly sufficient to meet either our international climate obligations or the 40-45 percent emission reduction target for methane that the U.S. has publicly committed to. The next target for pollution safeguards must be existing oil and gas equipment. According to ICF International, sources in the oil and gas industry that currently exist—and are therefore not covered under the Methane Rule—will contribute nearly 90 percent of sector-wide emissions in 2018. Under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, the EPA now has a duty to issue emission guidelines for existing sources of methane in the oil and gas sector. The agency has already started the process of collecting data in anticipation of existing source emission guidelines, and we will continue to urge the EPA to adopt strong safeguards for these sources as quickly as possible.
Even the most protective methane and VOC standards, however, cannot make hydrofracking clean or safe, nor can they reduce the large quantities of greenhouse gases and other pollutants that are emitted when oil and gas are combusted. The most effective policy for protecting public health, preserving our wild lands, and curbing the effects of climate change, is to keep dirty fossil fuels in the ground while replacing them with renewable resources and energy efficiency programs. Oil and gas are not the solution to supplying our future domestic energy needs or to staving off climate change; transitioning to a truly clean energy economy is. In the meantime, we will push forward to defend the EPA’s Methane Rule for new sources and continue advocating for a strong set of emission guidelines for existing sources of methane in the oil and gas industry.