By Nicole Pinko, Union of Concerned Scientists
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced proposed changes to the New, Reconstructed, and Modified Source Performance Standards for the Oil and Gas Sector. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the Trump administration is yet again pandering to fossil fuel interests by trying to roll back the EPA’s oversight of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. If successful, it would all but eliminate the Obama-era regulation that requires oil and natural gas companies to reduce methane emissions from their operations.
Some major oil and gas companies, including BP, ExxonMobil, and Shell, have taken a public stand in support of federal methane regulation but maintain leadership roles in the American Petroleum Institute (API), which first requested the rollback years ago and has kept the pressure on ever since. Other API leaders, including Chevron and ConocoPhillips, have remained silent and let API speak for them.
Given the global warming effects of methane, any oil and gas company that claims to support climate action should not only publicly advocate to keep the existing rule, but also insist that API publicly drop its push to gut federal methane regulations.
Why methane regulation matters
The scientific community is increasingly stressing the catastrophic effects that methane gas has on our climate. Methane has 86 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, which means these emissions have an immediate outsized warming effect on our atmosphere. It also means curbing methane emissions now plays a major role in mitigating global warming in the short term, and needs to be a priority in order to limit warming to well below 2-degrees Celsius and pursue efforts to keep it to 1.5 degrees, the goal set by the Paris Agreement. And by using ground-based measurements and aircraft observations, scientists have discovered that methane is currently being emitted at much higher levels than previously reported.
In the US, the oil and gas sector is by far the largest emitter of methane, which is mainly released during natural gas extraction, production, and transportation. A leakage rate of 3 percent is expected to negate any emissions-related advantage natural gas might have over coal. A team led by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), multiple universities, and NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory has estimated the natural gas industry is currently at 2.3 percent.
For a full explanation of the dire impacts of methane emissions, see my colleague Derrick Jackson’s blog post.
By the EPA’s own calculations, this rollback would increase emissions of dangerous air pollutants–370,000 short tons of methane (or 8.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent), 10,000 short tons of volatile organic compounds, and 300 short tons of hazardous air pollutants (cumulatively, through 2025)–-which would fuel global warming and pollute communities near oil and gas operations.
Oil and gas industry lobby shows signs of fracturing
API, the largest oil and gas trade association in the US and the architect of the campaign to cast doubt on climate science, was among the first to petition for the rollback. The association’s members comprise most of the oil and natural gas production in the US and it has been influential at the EPA in recent years. The Vice President of API has already praised the proposed rule, saying that they “think it’s a smarter way of targeting methane emissions.” And by “smarter,” API clearly means “nonexistent.”
Some oil and gas companies, however –including several members of API–have publicly come out in favor of the EPA’s oversight of methane. Shell stated its support in its Industry Associations Climate Review and BP published a widely circulated op-ed in the Houston Chronicle. ExxonMobil recently joined them in backing EPA oversight. Several European oil and gas companies, such as Equinor, have also clearly stated their support for US federal oversight of methane emissions.
But none of these companies has publicly repudiated the API’s position, and more oil and gas companies have stayed silent, instead pointing to their own underwhelming voluntary efforts to reduce methane (including one spearheaded by the API). Given the influence API has on this issue, we are left with the assumption that API’s stance also speaks for the companies. If that is not the case, it is up to the companies to distance themselves from API’s position and follow their peers’ example and publicly support the EPA’s oversight of methane. These companies include carbon majors like Chevron and ConocoPhillips.
Damage methane inflicts not worth the small savings
The industry has claimed that the rollback won’t affect emissions due to voluntary measures being taken by oil and natural gas companies, but that’s not accurate. Even EPA Administrator Wheeler has admitted that relaxing regulations will increase methane emissions, but that it’s worth it to save the industry a mere $17 million-19 million per year. By comparison, ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods was paid $17.5 million in 2018. While the Administration *may* claim that there is no clear study or endangerment finding on methane to underpin federal regulation, that’s simply counter to science, common sense, and public interest.
We know that the companies and lobby groups behind the rollback agree that methane emissions are contributing to climate change, even if the administration doesn’t. We know that this is just another attempt of the administration to pander to fossil fuel interests. And we know that in the absence of this regulation requiring companies to reduce their methane emissions, methane emissions will increase, continuing to drive dangerous global warming.