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Trump administration scraps limits on methane leaks at oil and gas sites

The Obama-era regulations overturned by Trump restricted the potent greenhouse gas

The sun shines through clouds above a shale gas drilling site in St. Mary's, Pa. The Trump administration is scrapping limits on methane leaks from oil and gas fields and pipelines. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

The Trump administration is scrapping limits on methane leaks, allowing oil and gas companies to decide how much of the potent greenhouse gas can escape into the atmosphere from wells, pipelines and storage tanks.

The new rules, issued Thursday by the Office of Management and Budget, effectively rescind the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate methane, the largest component of natural gas. Although it dissipates faster than carbon dioxide, methane is estimated to be at least 25 times and as much as 80 times more potent in terms of trapping heat in the atmosphere.

The administration said methane would now be regulated under the Clean Air Act like other volatile compounds, but the rules governing those smog-forming compounds are comparatively weak.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed the new rules in Pittsburgh, in a battleground state that has the most extensive shale gas resources in the country. “EPA has been working hard to fulfill President Trump’s promise to cut burdensome and ineffective regulations for our domestic energy industry,” Wheeler said in a news release. “Today’s regulatory changes remove redundant paperwork, align with the Clean Air Act, and allow companies the flexibility to satisfy leak-control requirements by complying with equivalent state rules.”

The current regulations date to 2016 and are among environmental protections crafted by the Obama administration that President Trump has systematically reversed.

The Trump administration has sought since 2019 to eliminate methane limitations because many of the small- and medium-sized companies in the oil and gas business — among the president’s ardent supporters — want to reduce the cost of complying with regulations. The American Petroleum Institute and the Independent Petroleum Association of America said their members could still choose whether to further reduce emissions.

A handful of the biggest oil and gas companies, meanwhile, supported the Obama-era rules because they meant the companies could capture — and sell — methane that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere. Those companies said they would continue those practices, even if they are no longer required by the government.

Environmental groups and some lawmakers denounced the administration’s move.

“I can’t think of a worse policy decision for the American environment and the global climate risk,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said in an interview. King, who helped found the bipartisan Senate Climate Solutions Caucus, said capturing methane emissions could be done at “a modest cost for a gigantic benefit.”

Former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has pledged “on day one” to require “aggressive methane pollution limits for new and existing oil and gas operations.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council said Thursday that it will launch a legal challenge. “We will see EPA in court,” said David Doniger, head of climate policy at the NRDC.

Scientists have projected that the world needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions nearly in half by mid-century to avert catastrophic effects from global warming. According to the EPA, methane accounted for more than 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in 2017. Nearly a third of those emissions were generated by the natural gas and petroleum industry.

But more recent research has shown that methane emissions are about 60 percent higher than what the EPA has previously stated, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, which has been measuring those emissions.

“What the administration is doing is fundamentally flawed,” EDF President Fred Krupp said in an interview. “It ignores the facts.”

Capturing methane is more cost-effective than originally estimated, and many states are moving ahead with their own methane emission guidelines, he said.

A senior EPA official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that “the notion that this regulatory act lacks a scientific basis is straight-up dishonest.”

Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of the National Wildlife Federation, said the decision by the Trump administration will disproportionately affect minority communities. More than 1 million African Americans live within a half mile of a natural gas facility, according to a 2017 report from the NAACP and Clean Air Task Force.

“So while this rule hurts all of us, it will disproportionately impact Black, Hispanic and Indigenous communities, again putting those Americans most impacted by environmental racism at risk of dying prematurely from air pollution,” Ali said in a statement. “This is another example of how this administration creates sacrifice zones across our country.”

Methane concentrations in the atmosphere have been rising since the industrial revolution — they are now 150 percent higher than they were in the year 1750, according to the Global Carbon Project, growing from around 700 to over 1,850 parts per billion.

The rate of increase has been particularly sharp over the past roughly 15 years. Atmospheric methane levels began a rapid rise in 2007. In 2019 alone, atmospheric concentrations of methane increased by 10 parts per billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That was the fourth-biggest increase in the past three decades.

The source of all that gas is unclear. Many suspect that the growth in oil and natural gas drilling brought on by the fracking revolution is playing a key role in the increase in atmospheric methane since 2007. Another major source is agriculture, including cattle and other ruminant animals, and flooded rice fields. Scientists have been struggling to sort out the relative role of each contributor.

But the oil patch is a likely suspect. Since 2007, the amount of drilling for shale oil and gas in the United States has exploded. Because shale wells produce most of their gas in 18 to 24 months, thousands upon thousands of new wells are needed just to keep production level.

Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University, says his research shows that shale gas development in North America alone has been responsible for one-third of the total increase in global methane emissions over the past year. He also says methane has been responsible for about a quarter of global warming in recent decades.

The Independent Petroleum Association of America, which before the Trump administration had been a lobbying client of now-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, says on its website that “operators have every incentive to capture and sell as much of this product as possible” and that “it doesn’t take top-down mandates from Washington, D.C.” to recognize the benefits of gas drilling.

IPAA’s executive vice president of government relations, Lee Fuller, said the changes will help smaller oil and gas companies that are fighting for survival during the economic downturn and resulting oil glut.

“Those small businesses would be the people who would be served well by changes because it would allow them to keep in operation and not be pressed to shut down because of the regulatory cost,” he said.

Frank Macchiarola, API’s senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs, said, “Our industry sees this as important for environmental stewardship as well as for business.” He said “capturing methane emissions is in our interest because ultimately, we’re going to provide natural gas for American families and consumers.”

But the Trump move eliminates regulations limiting methane on pipelines and storage facilities in between processing plants and consumers, the NRDC’s Doniger said. It reduces the frequency of important monitoring from quarterly to twice a year. And it allows the EPA to expand the number of low-production wells — which produce the equivalent of 15 barrels a day of oil — that are exempt from certain regulations, Doniger added.

The world’s biggest oil companies, however, have already pledged to cut methane emissions.

BP said the new methane regulations would have no impact on the company’s operations. “BP believes methane should be directly regulated by the EPA and opposes today’s decision by the Administration,” said David C. Lawler, BP’s chairman and president of the company’s U.S. operations. “The direct federal regulation of methane emissions is a critical step to protecting the environment and keeping the gas in our pipes in order to provide it to the market.”

A BP spokesman, Jason Ryan, said the London-based company would continue plans to install monitoring equipment throughout BP’s international and U.S. operations by 2023. Once it collects a reliable count of emissions, it will slash those emissions by half, Ryan said.

ExxonMobil, which signed a set of “Methane Guiding Principles,” says it has cut emissions by 20 percent since 2016. Chevron has tied executive compensation to reductions in methane emissions.

In March 2019, Royal Dutch Shell’s head of U.S. operations, Gretchen Watkins, urged the Trump administration to tighten instead of loosen regulation of methane emissions.

“It is a big part of the climate problem and frankly we can do more,” Watkins said in an interview with Reuters at IHS Markit’s CERAWeek conference in Houston in 2019. “We don’t usually tell governments how to do their job but we’re ready to break with that and say, ‘Actually, we want to tell you how to do your job,’ ” she said.

Desmond Butler and Chris Mooney contributed to this report.