EPA acknowledges delaying methane rule might make more children sick, but will help industry

Scott Pruitt follows through on promise to oil and gas industry.

The EPA proposed a two-year delay in the implementation of rules designed to reduce methane leaks at new oil and gas facilities. CREDIT: AP Photo/Brennan Linsley
The EPA proposed a two-year delay in the implementation of rules designed to reduce methane leaks at new oil and gas facilities. CREDIT: AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

The Environmental Protection Agency late Tuesday proposed a two-year delay on the implementation of a rule that would require oil and gas companies to detect and repair leaks of methane and other air pollution at new and modified drilling wells.

The agency said the delay would allow more time to review issues associated with the rule’s requirements to limit methane leaks and their potential negative impact on oil and gas drilling activities. Under the proposed two-year delay, companies would not need to comply with the requirements.

Environmental groups immediately attacked the proposed delay. The Environmental Defense Fund pointed to the fact that the EPA’s announcement acknowledges that the delay may make children sick, “but argues that more illness for only two years is acceptable.”

EDF highlighted a section of the agency’s proposed rule that states: “EPA believes that the environmental health or safety risk addressed by this action may have a disproportionate effect on children… However, because this action merely proposes to delay the 2016 Rule, this action will not change any impacts of the 2016 Rule after the stay. Any impacts on children’s health caused by the delay in the rule will be limited, because the length of the proposed stay is limited.”

The EPA also estimated that the cost savings for the oil and gas industry associated with the proposed delay in implementing the methane rule would total roughly $173 million.

Peter Zalzal, lead attorney for EDF, countered that the two-year delay will increase the release of methane and cancer-causing benzene. “Every day that these clean air safeguards are delayed, thousands of oil and gas wells across the country will emit dangerous pollution in the air, harming the health of our children,” Zalzal said in a statement. “We are taking legal action to carry out our nation’s clean air laws and fight for the health of children across America.”

The Obama administration finalized the New Source Performance Standards in 2016 as part of a federal effort to reduce the release of methane, a greenhouse gas with 25 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. The oil and gas sector is the largest U.S. industrial emitter of methane, which is the second-biggest driver of climate change after carbon dioxide.

EPA Administrator Scott 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 a 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.”

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt attends a Cabinet meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt attends a Cabinet meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Environmental groups view the EPA’s action as a favor to oil and gas companies that complain the Obama-era rule will be costly and duplicative. “It’s clear that Scott Pruitt and Donald Trump will stop at nothing to permit the fossil fuel industry to continue polluting our communities,” Sierra Club chief climate counsel Joanne Spalding said in a statement.This isn’t simply mean-spirited, it’s a deliberate attempt to benefit the oil and gas industry at the expense of our public health.”

Delaying the implementation of the standards is illegal and extending the 90-day stay to two years is equally invalid, Spalding argued. As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt filed a lawsuit against the EPA challenging the rule.

The Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, and other environmental groups recently filed a lawsuit against Pruitt and the EPA for “illegally” issuing the 90-day stay of the New Source Performance Standards. According to the Sierra Club, the lawsuit was the first to be filed against the Trump administration’s EPA for attempting to suspend climate pollution reduction requirements.

“The cornerstone of the rule is its requirements for leak detection and repair, which direct oil and gas companies to monitor their well sites and compressor stations at regular intervals to detect leaks (also called fugitive emissions) of air pollutants, repair those leaks within specified periods, and report periodically on those actions,” the lawsuit states.

The groups argue that the EPA has no authority to issue a stay that is likely to cause irreparable harm to the residents who live in close proximity to the more than 18,000 new and modified wells subject to the 2016 rule. “Promulgated rules remain in effect unless and until they are validly changed through the Clean Air Act’s enhanced rule-making procedures,” they said.

The EPA’s standards are crucial for reducing pollution in communities affected by oil and gas development, the Sierra Club said. In Pennsylvania, for example, the standards would provide benefits to Lois Bower-Bjornson, a small business owner lives within a mile and a half of 15 active new fracking rigs, including four within only 2,000 feet of her rural home.

“The oil and gas industry tell us natural gas is a clean, low carbon fuel, but industry lobbyists and lawyers then argue to remove the protections necessary to deliver on that claim. Sadly, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is only too happy to do their bidding” Mark Brownstein, EDF’s vice president of climate and energy, said in a statement. “Every day these common sense rules are not in effect, the public’s health is at risk, the climate is threatened, and the nation’s valuable energy resources are being wasted.”

The EPA will accept comments on the proposal for 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register. The public also will get a chance to comment on another Trump administration plan to delay implementation of a separate methane waste reduction rule issued by the Obama administration in late 2016.

The Bureau of Land Management on Thursday is expected to formally postpone compliance dates for the rule, which is aimed at limiting methane waste at oil and gas drilling sites on public lands. The BLM rule recently survived a Congressional Review Act repeal vote.