By David Doniger, Natural Resources Defense Council
As leaders meet in California for the Global Climate Action Summit to mark new state, local, and business commitments to curb climate-changing pollution, the odd-men-out in the Trump Administration took another step backwards, by proposing to roll back Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits on the rampant leakage of methane, a powerful heat-trapping pollutant, by the oil and gas industry.
The oil and gas industry routinely lets methane (the main component of natural gas) escape through unrepaired leaks and intentional venting from wells, pipelines, compressors, and other infrastructure. These leaks can be massive, yet invisible to the naked eye. They can be spotted, however, using infrared cameras – hand-held or (as in this Chevron ad) mounted on drones. Fixing leaks does more than stop pollution. It pays back in dollar terms by keeping natural gas in the pipes to be sold to customers.
The Trump EPA’s proposal unveiled yesterday would weaken common-sense requirements established in 2016 for companies to check for leaks, and to fix them. The rules (called New Source Performance Standards) apply to new or expanded facilities. Many oil and gas companies actually support them. And nearly all companies (even those that want them changed) reported last year that they were in compliance with them.
EPA’s proposal would cut required methane leak inspections in half and grant the industry twice as long to repair any leaks that are discovered. Where the current rules require leak inspections every six months for most equipment, the proposal would reduce that to once a year. And where the current rules allow 30 days to fix leaks once found, the proposal would allow 60 days.
So leaks can go undiscovered twice as long, and once found they can go unrepaired for twice as long.
Worse, the proposal would let oil and gas companies follow state standards instead of the federal rules even if the state standards are weaker than the federal ones.
The rollback will save polluters some bucks, but it will mean more climate change, smog, and toxic pollution for millions of ordinary Americans.
EPA projects that 380,000 tons more methane will be released under Trump’s rollback than under the existing rules. That‘s equivalent to the yearly climate pollution of more than 2.6 million cars.
Pound for pound, methane has 84 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide, measured on a 20-year basis. It accounts for at least 10 percent of total U.S. greenhouse emissions, and the single largest source of industrial methane emissions is the oil and gas industry.
And the added methane leakage will come with thousands of tons of other dangerous pollutants, including smog-producing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and cancer-causing toxins such as benzene.
The proposal is candid, if bloodless, in admitting that the rollback will harm human health, saying (at page 14): “While the EPA expects that the forgone VOC emission reductions may also degrade air quality and adversely affect health and welfare effects associated with exposure to ozone, PM2.5, and HAP, data limitations prevent the EPA from quantifying forgone VOC-related health benefits.”
Controlling methane leakage is not rocket science. A 2014 report by NRDC and others showed how industry can cut methane pollution by at least half, while dramatically reducing other harmful air pollution at the same time, using available, low-cost technologies and practices. A 2017 report found that methane rules also create good paying jobs. At least 60 companies provide methane leak detection and repair services to oil and gas companies in 45 states.
These are not drastic measures. Energy-producing states like Colorado have their own regulations requiring those same measures, and their industry has been thriving. But many states cannot or will not do what Colorado has done to protect their citizens. That’s why we need federal standards under the Clean Air Act.
But the Trump Administration has decided to sell out the health and future of our children and families to the worst actors in the oil and gas industry. This EPA rule won’t be the end of it. Trump’s appointees at EPA are weighing whether to propose repealing limits on methane altogether, according to E&E News. And Trump’s Interior Department is expected soon to finalize rolling back the Bureau of Land Management’s standards to cut natural gas flaring, methane leaks, and the waste of taxpayer-owned natural gas worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The next steps will be a public hearing and a public comment period, where EPA will hear from thousands of Americans who want the agency to keep these protections – and go on to curb the emissions of the existing oil and gas infrastructure that’s still unregulated.
The Trump administration’s poor track record in court gives us reason for optimism that we can block all these rollbacks. Last July, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit slapped down EPA’s first attempt to suspend these methane protections it was because it violated the Clean Air Act. The Interior Department has lost two cases for trying the same thing with the BLM rules.
The Trump administration is not above the law. NRDC will use all the tools in our toolbox to ensure that the health of our families and future of our planet is not sacrificed on the altar of polluter profits.