The Trump administration today announced a new proposal to reverse Obama-era regulations that limit how much methane, a potent greenhouse gas, the oil and natural gas industries are allowed to emit.
The proposals made today are separate from and in addition to a 2018 proposed rule that eased methane reporting and monitoring requirements for oil- and gas-extraction businesses.
The proposed plan (PDF) would “rescind emissions limits for methane from the production and processing segments of the industry,” the EPA says. The proposal would also remove parts of the transmission and storage segments of the oil and gas industry—generally called the midstream business—from being subject to regulation, by claiming the agency was out of line when it added sources such as transmission compressor stations, pneumatic controllers, and underground storage vessels to the rule.
The agency estimates an additional 370,000 short tons of methane would be released into the atmosphere by 2025, as compared to leaving the 2016 rule in place, as well as 10,000 short tons of volatile organic compounds and 300 short tons of “hazardous air pollutants.”
The increased emissions would also result in a loss to “total present value of climate benefits” between $2.3 million and $8.1 million per year, the EPA says. The removal of methane emissions caps would, however, save the oil and natural gas sector $17-$19 million per year ($97-$123 million by 2025), the EPA estimates, or about 0.07% of the US industry’s $28 billion net income for 2018.
The proposal “delivers on President Trump’s executive order and removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry,” EPA head Andrew Wheeler said in a statement. “The Trump administration recognizes that methane is valuable, and the industry has an incentive to minimize leaks and maximize its use.”
But what is “clean air,” really?
Methane is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas, with roughly 30 times more heat-trapping potential than carbon dioxide. At least one study has found that the EPA likely dramatically underestimates how much methane is released in the production of oil and natural gas.
In addition to seeking to roll back methane emissions limits, the agency is asking for “alternative interpretations of EPA’s legal authority to regulate pollutants” under the terms of the Clean Air Act.
The EPA says that its predecessors in 2016 took the position that the agency was not required first to make a “separate, pollutant-specific determination” that methane and other greenhouse gases produced by the oil and natural gas industry “cause, or significantly contribute to, air pollution that may endanger public health or welfare.” In the current proposal, the EPA seeks comment on whether it was right to take that position in 2016 and—if it should have made a separate, pollutant-specific determination—if methane would qualify.
The proposal also seeks comment on the “appropriate criteria to use” in the future when trying to determine if a specific pollutant from a particular source—like methane produced by the extraction industry—could be “reasonably anticipated” to endanger public health and the environment.
The proposed amendments will face a 60-day public comment period from the time they are published in the Federal Register, after which the EPA will make any revisions it deems necessary and then can issue a final rule. The agency also said it will hold a public hearing on the proposal at a time and in a place yet to be announced.