E.P.A. to Roll Back Regulations on Methane, a Potent Greenhouse Gas

Source: By Lisa Friedman, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, August 29, 2019

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is set to announce on Thursday that it intends to sharply curtail the regulation of methane emissions, a major contributor to climate change, according to an industry official with knowledge of the plan.

The Environmental Protection Agency, in a proposed rule, will aim to eliminate federal government requirements that the oil and gas industry put in place technology to inspect for and repair methane leaks from wells, pipelines and storage facilities.

The proposed rollback is particularly notable because major oil and gas companies have, in fact, opposed it, just as some other industries have opposed the Trump administration’s other major moves to dismantle climate change and other environmental rules put in place by President Barack Obama.

Some of the world’s largest auto companies have opposed Mr. Trump’s plans to let vehicles pollute more, while some electric utilities have opposed the relaxation of restrictions on toxic mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants.

“This is extraordinarily harmful,” Rachel Kyte, the United Nations special representative on sustainable energy, said of this and other Trump administration efforts to undo climate regulations. “Just at a time when the federal government’s job should be to help localities and states move faster toward cleaner energy and a cleaner economy, just at that moment when speed and scale is what’s at stake, the government is walking off the field.”

Under the proposal, methane, the main component of natural gas, would only be indirectly regulated. A separate but related category of gases covered under the Obama-era rules, known as volatile organic compounds, would still be subject to regulation under the new rules. Those curbs would also have the side benefit of averting some methane emissions.

The new rule must go through a period of public comment and review, and would most likely be finalized early next year, analysts said. The Wall Street Journal initially reported the expected rule.

Over all, carbon dioxide is the most significant greenhouse gas, but methane is a close second. It lingers in the atmosphere for a shorter period of time but packs a bigger punch while it lasts. By some estimates, methane has 80 times the heating-trapping power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years in the atmosphere.

Methane currently makes up nearly 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. A significant portion of that comes from the oil and gas sector.

Andrew R. Wheeler, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, at a refinery in Trainer, Pa., last month.
Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Erik Milito, a vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing the oil and gas industry, praised the proposed rule, saying, “We think it’s a smarter way of targeting methane emissions.”

But some major oil companies, including some members of the industry organization, have called on the Trump administration to tighten restrictions on methane.

Exxon wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency last year urging the agency to maintain core elements of the Obama-era policy. And, in March, Gretchen Watkins, the United States chairwoman for Shell, said the E.P.A. should impose rules “that will both regulate existing methane emissions by also future methane emissions.”

Susan Dio, the chairwoman and president of BP America, wrote an op-ed article in March saying that regulating methane is the “right thing to do for the planet”and for the natural gas industry.

Ben Ratner, a senior director with the Environmental Defense Fund, a group that works closely with oil companies to track and reduce methane emissions, noted that the industry had invested millions of dollars to promote natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal.

With natural gas under increasing pressure from more affordable forms of renewable energy, he said, companies are wary of any move that might tarnish its reputation as a cleaner energy source.

“The reputation of American natural gas is at the precipice, and methane rollbacks are the shove,” Mr. Ratner said.

Lee Fuller, executive vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said the smaller operators responsible for lower-producing wells that his group represents could not absorb the costs that Exxon or Shell could, particularly when it came to inspecting and repairing older wells.

“It’s much easier for them to regulate those existing sources,” Mr. Fuller said of the big producers. “But for these small businesses, it’s a very different economic impact.”

The methane regulation has been in the administration’s cross hairs since Mr. Trump’s earliest days in office. In March 2017, Scott Pruitt, then the E.P.A. administrator, tried to suspend the regulation while the agency considered an alternative, but a federal appeals court ruled the move unlawful.

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