Trump Announces Plans to Roll Back Rules on Methane Leaks

As Hurricane Florence’s assault on the Carolinas loomed as further proof of climate change, the White House released yet another rollback of rules designed to minimize dangerous fossil fuel emissions.

Flaring at an Oxnard fossil fuel well. Photo: haymarketrebel, CC

This week the Trump Administration released information on three major rule changes which will poison the environment further but save money for the fossil fuel industry.

On September 11, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposal to change Obama-era rules regarding detection and elimination of methane (natural gas) leaks at oil and gas facilities, along pipelines, and at methane well site. That will shortly be followed up with a revised rule from the Department of the Interior which restricts deliberate venting and “flaring” (burning) of methane from drilling operations. A third rule change would ease emissions restrictions for fracking operations on public lands. That follows earlier announcements opening up many public lands to increased fossil fuel exploration, often at very low cost.

The EPA proposal effectively gives industry twice as long between mandatory methane inspections as required under 2016 rules. Prior to the Trump changes, oil and gas providers had to inspect for leaks on drilling equipment as often as every six months. The changes would extend that to once a year for most facilities, and once every two years for wells which are small producers. If a leak is found, it currently must be fixed within 30 days; under the new proposal that extends to 60 days.

Another part of the EPA changes allows a similar doubling of the amount of time producers must inspect the equipment which captures and compresses methane at the sites. In most cases that will allow companies to wait six months between inspections, versus three months under the 2016 rules. In the newly-opened Alaskan North Slope, where companies complain that the tough weather makes inspections harder, the time between inspections would increase to every 12 months. The same companies which are complaining about this somehow found the harsh environment no problem when it came to rip into the formerly protected federal lands there to extract the natural gas.

The EPA also added another important gift to the fossil fuel companies with a third part of the proposed rule changes. This change allows oil and gas companies to ignore these federal rules if they are operating in states which have their own methane standards. If those standards are less than the federal government’s requirements, such as they are in Texas, the companies could have even less monitoring to do. Assuming this aspect of the rule becomes official, expect groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council to begin providing states with their own draft laws which are even more relaxed than federal standards for emissions in the future. North Dakota officials have already signaled they may ease their in-state regulations if this part of the EPA proposed changes becomes official.

The EPA said its rule changes provided a way of cutting monitoring costs for the fossil fuel industry while also saving $75 million in federal regulatory costs because there would be less oversight. It said the changes would be less burdensome for both parties.

In changing the regulations, the EPA did note that these changes would dump another 380,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere from 2019 to 2025. That is equivalent to about 30 million tons of carbon dioxide in terms of its climate change effects. The agency also said the increased pollution from methane leaks which are not found or repaired as fast as before “may also degrade air quality and adversely affect health and welfare”.

Methane is an especially dangerous gas when released into the atmosphere. It traps heat 100 times as much as an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide within 5 years. Over a 20-year period its effect degrades slightly, but what’s up there still traps heat at a rate 72 times that of carbon dioxide.

It is estimated approximately one-third of all methane pollution around the world comes from fossil fuel producers. The bulk of the rest of methane emissions come from livestock, manure management and other agricultural contributions.

As expected, industry representatives were pleased with the changes. As Kathleen Sgmamma, President of the Colorado-based Western Energy Alliance, a group which represents over 300 companies, said in an interview the early inspection rule was “full of red tape. This rule cleans that up, makes it more practical.”

Environmentalists reacted strongly to the changes, even though they were not unexpected. Matt Watson, an Environmental Defense fund associate vice president, said, “Once again, the Trump administration is putting the interests of the worst-operated oil and gas companies ahead of the heath and welfare of everyday Americans”.