Trump administration to gut methane pollution safeguards
EPA proposal would challenge Clean Air Act authority, give oil and gas operations free pass to pollute
Under the leadership of former fossil fuel lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a sweeping plan to reverse critical methane pollution regulations for the oil and gas industry. The proposal would allow drillers to vent and leak methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from wellheads, pipelines, and processing facilities, and even challenges the agency’s legal authority to regulate methane altogether. In conjunction with rollbacks by the Trump Interior Department, the move gives the oil and gas industry free rein to pollute at will.
As oil and gas drilling has boomed across the West, so too have methane emissions. Leaks from oil and gas operations, visible on infrared cameras, have spewed methane into the air in such great quantities, that a “hot spot” of elevated methane levels over the Four Corners is detectable from space. A study published last year in the journal Science found that the oil and gas industry emits 13 million metric tons of methane — 60 percent more than the current EPA estimate. However, at a time when communities, wildlife, and public lands around the West are facing increased threats from climate change, the Trump administration is eliminating efforts to reduce methane pollution.
In a 153-page proposal, the EPA lays out a number of ways it plans to gut methane pollution standards set by the Obama administration. First, the agency proposes to split the oil and gas industry in half, completely removing transmission and storage (i.e. pipelines, compressor stations, and tanks) from regulation altogether. Second, for oil and gas production and processing (i.e. wells and related equipment), the EPA would eliminate any limits on methane emissions. Instead, the agency would only require drillers to limit emissions of volatile organic compounds, a smog-causing pollutant. The one-two punch essentially renders the methane standards meaningless.
Most ominously, the agency announced that it may challenge its own legal authority to set methane standards without first making a determination that it qualifies as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Such a move aims to kneecap the EPA’s ability to regulate climate change pollution altogether, even though the Supreme Court has ruled twice that the agency has a duty to regulate climate pollution, and that methane and other greenhouse gases are pollutants under the Clean Air Act.
The EPA’s announcement comes nearly a year after the Interior Department rolled back rules designed to limit methane leaks from oil and gas operations on public lands. Combined, the EPA and Interior plans, both of which face legal challenges, will mean that more natural gas will be leaked into the atmosphere as pollution instead of being captured and sold. Unfortunately, with an oil lobbyist running the Interior Department and a coal lobbyist heading the Environmental Protection Agency, it is clear the Trump administration will continue to prioritize profits for their former industry clients over addressing climate change and protecting public health.