Swift reactions to EPA’s new moves on methane

John R. Moses
Farmington Daily Times
Methane’s risks, rewards
In another battle between environmentalists and the oil industry, opinions diverge on how to curb  methane emissions. Page 4

FARMINGTON — Environmentalists and business groups reacted swiftly on Sept. 11 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to streamline, reduce or eliminate many rules regarding the mandatory monitoring and repair of methane leaks in the oil and gas fields.

The EPA said in a press release punctuated with quotes from industry experts that the proposed changes will “streamline implementation, reduce duplicative EPA and state requirements, and significantly decrease unnecessary burdens on domestic energy producers.” 

The EPA release also said the changes will ultimately save “up to approximately $484 million in regulatory costs from 2019–2025 or $75 million annually.”

There will be a 60-day comment period and a hearing.

Environmentalists see the plan as a chainsaw approach to cutting back regulations that will substantially weaken what the Sierra Club called “common-sense safeguards that “limit the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from oil and gas infrastructure, and protect communities from other harmful pollutants released alongside methane, such as benzene and volatile organic compounds.”

A flaring stack is pictured near Riverview Golf Course in Kirtland.

The announcement also brought a swift rebuke from U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who is a ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.

“Methane gas is a super-pollutant for climate change, and today’s EPA action is wasteful and outrageous,” Udall said in a statement. “Actions by EPA to weaken these commonsense, cost-effective oil and gas emission limits will increase pollution and endanger the health and well-being of surrounding communities.”

Udall called the plan a “short-sighted proposal” that continues the Trump administration policies of putting corporate polluter profits ahead of public health, “even though many in industry have said they can work with the rules.”

Sen. Tom Udall

“Repairing unnecessary leaks not only makes business sense — but it is also absolutely necessary to protect the long-term health of our planet and the air we breathe,” Udall said. “Rather than leaving these common-sense safeguards in place, which have been working for a year, the Trump EPA is prioritizing its big polluter friends at the expense of the health and well-being of New Mexicans and people across the country.”

U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., and New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas were among state and national officials who also quickly condemned the announcement.

What will change?

Specifically, the EPA proposed what it calls “targeted improvements” to the oil and gas industry’s 2016 New Source Performance Standards.

In this Feb. 25, 2015, file photo, a gas flare is seen at a natural gas processing facility near Williston, N.D. The Interior Department is moving to delay an Obama-era regulation aimed at restricting harmful methane emissions from oil and gas production on federal lands. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

“These common-sense reforms will alleviate unnecessary and duplicative red tape and give the energy sector the regulatory certainty it needs to continue providing affordable and reliable energy to the American people,” said EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “Removing these excessive regulatory burdens will generate roughly $484 million in cost savings and support increased domestic energy production — a top priority of President Trump.”

The EPA says the changes include “aligning requirements between EPA's rule and existing state programs; modifying the frequency for monitoring leaks (also known as 'fugitive emissions') at well sites and compressor stations; and making it easier for owners and operators to use emerging measurement technologies in their leaks monitoring surveys.”

Industry says emissions already down

Industry advocates can point to many studies showing a decrease in methane emissions as companies adopt better technologies for capturing methane and regular maintenance checks catch and repair leaks in the fields.

“Significantly, methane emissions from the oil and natural gas industry are already down 14 percent since 1990 while production has increased by 50 percent,” the American Petroleum Institute’s Senior Director of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs Howard Feldman said in a Sept. 11 release online. “Clean natural gas produced through advanced technologies like hydraulic fracturing has helped reduce carbon emissions to 25-year lows. U.S. air quality continues to improve as the natural gas and oil industry remains committed to reaching our shared goals of protecting public health and the environment while meeting the nation’s energy needs.”

Environmentalists, however, have studies of their own, the most recent coming from the Environmental Defense Fund. The study, released in June, found that the benefits of using natural gas are offset by the effects of unplanned venting releases at the sites of natural gas wells, something the study attempted to measure.

Industry leaders call that study an “outlier” that manipulates data from previous studies and comes to an unsupported conclusion.

Heavy support from industry groups

New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesman Robert McEntyre on Sept. 11 welcomed the proposed changes.
“This is responsible, common-sense methane management,” McEntyre said. He said the reforms reflect things environmental groups have sought in the past, including regular inspections for methane leaks.

“This definitely has those protections in place, annual inspections,” he said. The difference, he said, is the new set of rules would not be “burdensome.”
“Today’s technical amendments recognize successful infrastructure already in place in states like Ohio to protect public health and the environment,” said Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler. “EPA’s commonsense proposal supports state leadership through cooperative federalism and removes unnecessary red tape and burdensome duplication that only serve as roadblocks to responsible energy development in Ohio.”
Comments from private industry associations were also included in the EPA’s official release.

“America’s oil and natural gas producers understand the importance of fair, commonsense regulations. But, for too long, the federal bureaucracy has buried our industry in unnecessary and often duplicative red-tape,” said Independent Petroleum Association of America President and CEO Barry Russell. 

Conservationists counter

Comments from opposing environmentalists were absent from the federal press release, but quickly circulated via email.

The Sierra Club’s press release had its own army of commentators from the public and advocacy groups, including outspoken Gobernator rancher Don Schrieber, who, himself, has extraction rigs on his ranch land. His TV ads against Republican gubernatorial candidate and extraction industry advocate U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce and in favor of Democrat U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham ran frequently in mid-September.

"I want to ask Acting Administrator Wheeler, man-to-man, why he is proposing to come on to my ranch and harm my grandchildren,” Schrieber said. “EPA has the studies that show how kids suffer the most from methane pollution, and the toxic chemicals that go with it. Landowners and their families all across America will suffer when the New Source Performance Standards are weakened, and I think he needs to answer each one of us.”

“Methane safeguards save money and improve air quality for families,” said Rio Grande Chapter-Sierra Club director Camilla Feibelman. “They are an inexpensive and effective way to heal the climate, since methane traps 80 times more heat than CO2 but disappears from the atmosphere much more quickly. With all the climate destruction caused by the oil and gas industry, you would think they would jump at the chance to make this small effort to help. Instead, the industry’s commitment to disregard our children’s futures remains as strong as its influence over Trump’s EPA.”

The leader of one industry group acknowledged in the release that the goal of the changes is to eliminate red tape she said was meant to tie up the extraction industry.

“By fixing the numerous technical problems with the original rule, EPA will enable industry to continue its four-decade success record of reducing methane emissions,” Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma said. “This new rule encapsulates the energy dominance agenda that is leading to huge increases in American energy production and jobs with dramatically lower levels of imports from overseas, all while delivering environmental protection.”

The EPA will hold a 60-day comment period after the proposal is published in the Federal Register. The agency then will hold a public hearing in Denver. 

Go to https://www.epa.gov/controlling-air-pollution-oil-and-natural-gas-industry/actions-and-notices-about-oil-and-natural-gas#regactions for more information from the EPA.