The Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency ordered a halt on Wednesday to an Obama-era rule created to reduce methane leaks from new and modified oil and natural gas drilling wells.
The action places a 90-day stay on portions of the rule, set in 2016, that require oil and gas companies to detect and repair leaks of methane and other air pollution at new operations.
Scientists have found that in the United States, methane leaks and venting have nullified any emissions benefit from transitioning the electricity sector from coal to natural gas-fired power plants. In fact, the EPA recently found that the problem of escaping methane is even worse than initially feared. The United States currently gets a third of its electricity from natural gas, up from 24 percent in 2010.
With its latest action, however, the EPA wants to give the oil and gas industry a second chance to comment on the rule. The companies will not need to comply with certain requirements of the rule while the three-month stay is in effect, the agency said.
Oil and gas producers opposed the rule, saying they were already subject to state rules on methane emissions and had a financial incentive to capture methane and put it onto the market.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision to order the delay is in line with President Donald Trump’s so-called Energy Independence Executive Order, which directed the agency to review the oil and gas rules, the agency said.
Pruitt wrote a letter to several oil and gas industry associations in April promising to postpone the June 3 deadline for the rule. In the letter, Pruitt indicated he intended to exercise the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act to issue the stay of the requirements to find and fix equipment leaks, promising that “sources will not need to comply with these requirements while the stay is in effect.”
When the final rule was issued in May 2016, then-EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, responding to a question about the rule’s prospects under a new administration, said its requirements are safely within the legal mandate of the agency.
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 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 August 2016, immediately after the rule went into effect, oil and gas trade groups sued the EPA to block the rule. As Oklahoma attorney general at the time, Pruitt joined with other states in a lawsuit against the EPA over the rule.
The standards also would reduce 210,000 tons of smog-forming volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and 3,900 tons of air toxins. The leak detection and repair requirements in the rule deliver two-thirds of the methane emissions reductions and more than 90 percent of toxic air pollution reductions.
A coalition of environmental groups, in a letter sent to Pruitt last Thursday, said that halting implementation of the rule would leave the people living and working in oil and gas producing communities unprotected. Furthermore, delaying implementation of the rule will result in oil and gas companies saving only “modest compliance” expenditures that represent a tiny fraction of these companies’ tens of billions of dollars in annual revenues, the groups said.
The letter’s signatories included the Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, and many other national groups, as well as local organizations.
“This stay will increase health risks for numerous Americans living in close proximity to wells and other facilities, which will emit significant amounts of additional hazardous and smog-forming pollution that would otherwise have been reduced,” the coalition wrote. “The stay will also add thousands of tons of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, to an atmosphere already overburdened with heat-trapping pollutants.”
States like Colorado and Wyoming have already instituted similar rules that effectively use “common-sense technologies” that monitor emissions and find and fix leaks, according to a statement issued by the Environmental Defense Fund last Friday.