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Trump administration moves to rescind methane emission limits

30 August 2019

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed a plan to scrap Obama-era regulations targeting methane emissions from oil and gas wells. The proposed plan, put forward on August 29, is set to undergo a 60-day period of public comment before being finalised. It would see oil and gas companies police themselves when it comes to preventing methane leaking from wells and pipelines rather than adhering to federal regulations.

Representative image: Shutterstock
Representative image: Shutterstock

According to Reuters, the EPA estimates that easing the 2016 regulations would save energy companies up to $123 million by 2025. Andrew Wheeler, EPA Administrator, said in a statement that the proposal “removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry”. He added: “The Trump administration recognises that methane is valuable, and the industry has an incentive to minimise leaks and maximise its use.”

The plan is the latest move by President Trump to challenge the Obama administration’s environmental regulations in favour of reducing regulations and costs facing oil and gas companies. In 2016, the Obama administration first introduced a rule specifically targeting methane emissions from new oil and gas fracking operations, including from transport equipment. With the latest proposal from the EPA, the 2016 rule, along with other regulations on existing sources of methane, would be reversed. 

If the Trump administration’s proposal is successful, it is also likely to hamper any new administration’s attempts to rein in methane emission limits as the process would have to start again from scratch. 

The EPA has said that a 2012 ruling which controls methane emissions and limits smog causing emissions, called volatile organic compounds, will remain. EPA official Anne Idsal said that methane emissions are expected to fall in the coming years due to the 2012 rule and as energy companies control and minimise leaks themselves due to methane’s value as a component of natural gas. However, environmentalist groups claim that energy companies are not doing enough to control leaks, especially when low natural gas prices make it cheaper to release the methane. 

Reaction to the August 29 proposal have been mixed. Some of the world’s largest energy companies have opposed the move and called for the standards to be kept in place. Companies including Shell, Exxon Mobil, and BP are in favour of federal regulation of methane leaks because the alternative is the uncertainty of varying rules being implemented by different states and legal challenges from environmental groups.

In a statement calling for the 2016 rules to be kept, BP President Susan Dio said: "It’s not only the right thing to do for the environment, there is also a clear business case for doing this. The more gas we keep in our pipes and equipment, the more we can provide to the market – and the faster we can all move toward a lower-carbon future."

Smaller energy companies on the other hand lobbied for the change in the limits. The EPA said these companies were experiencing a hard time complying with the costs of the Obama-era rules. The American Petroleum Institute welcomed the rule change. The industry group's Vice President, Erik Milito, said it would "provide the flexibility to develop and deliver affordable and reliable American energy."

Methane is a significant contributor to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and, according to the EPA, accounted for more than 10% of all US greenhouse gas emissions since 2017.


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