Court tells Trump’s EPA to enforce methane rule for oil and gas drillers

EPA’s failure to enforce rule is causing release of “hazardous air pollutants,” court rules.

Tanker trucks line up near a natural gas burn-off flame in Williston, North Dakota. CREDIT: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
Tanker trucks line up near a natural gas burn-off flame in Williston, North Dakota. CREDIT: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

A federal appeals court ruled late Monday that the Environmental Protection Agency must enforce Obama-era restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the EPA’s attempt to suspend methane restrictions for the sector, formally vacating the agency’s 90-day stay of key provisions of New Source Performance Standards. The rule is now in effect.

The leak detection and repair provisions of the 2016 rule were set to take effect — and “begin delivering significant benefits”— on June 3. But on June 5, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt “unlawfully stayed these and other requirements of the rule retroactively from June 2 until August 31, 2017,” the court said.

Pruitt and his industry allies “have not offered any support for the proposition that compliance” with the 2016 rule “would cause significant hardship to regulated entities that had a year’s lead time to prepare,” the court argued.

At the same time, the EPA’s stay of the rule “is causing substantial additional methane, ozone-forming [volatile organic compounds], and hazardous air pollutants such as benzene and formaldehyde to be released into the air of communities near these wells,” the court explained in its Monday order.

Using its authority under the Clean Air Act, the Obama administration last year set the performance standards for the oil and gas sector. The rule was created to reduce methane leaks from new and modified oil and natural gas drilling wells.

The rule established emissions limits for methane pollution from new equipment and facilities — it did not apply to existing sources already in operation — and required oil and gas companies to find and repair fugitive methane leaks on a firm schedule. It also required producers to capture methane gas at new oil wells that otherwise would escape into the atmosphere.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, trapping heat 86 times more effectively than CO2 over a 20-year span, so leaking methane can be a huge problem. While natural gas burns more cleanly than coal, leaks in the system can eliminate the climate benefits.

In early June, a coalition of environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club, sued the Trump administration, saying it violated the law when it paused the rule.

A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit in early July agreed with the environmental groups, but gave the EPA extra time to weigh its legal options before enforcing the regulation. While the rule is now in effect, the court said Monday it is still considering intervenors’ request for rehearing and asked environmental groups and a coalition of states to file a response by Wednesday.

The order noted that nine of the 11 judges on the D.C. Circuit ruled that the Trump administration must enforce the rule. Judges Janice Rogers Brown and Brett Kavanaugh, both appointed by President George W. Bush, did not join the majority.

“Administrator Pruitt tried to impose a 90-day suspension of the vital clean air standards without public input and without analysis of the public health or environmental consequences,” the Environmental Defense Fund said in a statement issued late Monday.

In addition to the 90-day stay, the EPA proposed a two-year delay for the rule. The agency said the extra time would allow it to review the rule’s potential negative impact on oil and gas drilling activities. Under the proposed two-year delay, companies would not need to comply with the requirements. That proposal is currently in public comment period as part of the agency’s formal rulemaking process.

The Environmental Defense Fund pointed out that the EPA’s announcement of the proposed two-year delay acknowledged that it may make children sick, “but argues that more illness for only two years is acceptable.” Dozens of people showed up at the EPA’s headquarters in early July to speak out against the agency’s proposed delay in implementing the methane rule.

By sealing leaks and capturing methane at oil and gas wells, companies do more than prevent the release of methane. They capture toxic and hazardous air pollutants, such as volatile organic compounds, that can cause severe health issues for people who live near the sites, Barbara Gottlieb, director of environment and health for Physicians for Social Responsibility, told ThinkProgress after she testified.

“If you seal the leaks and capture the escaping gases, you get it all,” she said in reference to all of the air pollutants captured.