Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2021
On August 29, 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency (“the EPA”) announced a proposed reconsideration amendment to an Obama Administration rule regulating the natural gas industry’s methane emissions. This proposal is in response to President Trump’s order for federal agencies to review their actions, purportedly to remove potential resource burdens. The EPA asserts that the changes will remove regulatory duplication and save the industry millions of dollars, but the savings may come at the expense of increasing the planet’s vulnerability.
Methane is the second most prevalent green house gas plaguing our atmosphere. Its lifespan in the atmosphere is shorter than that of carbon dioxide, however it is far more efficient at trapping heat, making it a serious contributor to climate change issues.
The proposed amendment would affect the New Source Performance Standards (“NSPS”) for the oil and natural gas industry, a series of regulations enacted under former President Obama’s Administration in 2016, in accordance with the Clean Air Act. The regulations called for the NSPS to be directed at source categories, industries that significantly contribute to air pollution.
Previously, the NSPS only applied to natural gas processing and production, but the 2016 update expanded its scope as it currently also includes transmission and storage. The EPA’s proposed amendment seeks to remove transmission and storage as source categories and remove the limits currently in place on methane emissions from leaks resulting from processing and production. This means that any new natural gas industry wells, pipelines, and storage facilities will not be required to monitor or limit methane emissions.
What does this mean for methane regulation?
The EPA contends that the 2012 and 2016 rule is duplicative because there was no separate finding that impact of the natural gas industry’s transmission and storage sectors to air pollution is to the level of endangering the public health and welfare. It further asserts that limits from production and processing emotions should be eliminated because there are already limits on ozone-forming volatile organic compounds (“VOCs”).
VOCs are chemicals that become gases at room temperature. These gases can cause health complications such as eyes, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, and others. Common sources of VOCs include oil and gas extraction, diesel emissions, and industrial emissions. The EPA regulates VOCs under the National Volatile Organic Compound Emission Standards For Consumer And Commercial Products and suggests that the continued regulation of VOCs is sufficient to reduce methane emissions. The EPA also submitted an alternate proposal simply removing the limits on methane emissions from every source without removing transmission and storage as source categories.
If the EPA’s proposed reconsideration amendment is passes, it will effectively remove an important element of an effective compliance program: conducting internal monitoring and auditing. Even with methane being regulated as a VOC, a lack of internal monitoring still leaves the threat of massive emissions resulting from large leaks. Proper compliance monitoring is precisely what can help prevent a serious leak from occurring and save the ozone from great deal of additional pollution.
It is easy to see why this is a controversial move on the EPA’s part. On one hand, the agency can be seen as properly complying with an order given by the President. There is certainly merit to reconsidering an agency’s regulatory direction in order to allocate resources to where they can be best utilized. If there is money being spent on additional regulation of methane emissions and the agency is confident that it is adequately being monitored by existing legislation, then the EPA’s decision could be seen as rational. On the other hand, there are environmentalists who oppose the amendment, disagreeing with the EPA’s rationale. As a government agency purportedly dedicated to the environment, the proposed changes can be viewed as a sort of betrayal. Some environmentalists see the elimination of the limits for new oil and gas resources as a free pass for the industry. Senior Strategic Director of the Natural Resources and Defense Council (“the NRDC”), David Doniger, has already expressed a willingness to fight these rollbacks in court, just as it is actively doing for other issues under the Clean Air Act.
As of September 19, 2019, the EPA’s website still states that the primary source of methane emissions is the natural gas industry from all of its sectors, including transmission. Though the EPA’s estimates attribute 54% of the natural gas industry’s emissions to its production sector, a significant 16% is estimated to come from transmission and storage. Methane may only account for 10% of the total greenhouse gas emissions, but it is the second largest source after carbon dioxide. Methane’s lifespan in the atmosphere is also shorter than that of carbon dioxide, but its impact is still felt and must be addressed if we are serious about combating climate change. Easing regulations on such a significant contributor to climate change gives the impression that the EPA may extend the sentiment to the main culprit.