The Environmental Protection Agency Thursday announced it was withdrawing a request that operators of existing oil and gas wells provide the agency with extensive information about their equipment and its emissions of methane, undermining a last-ditch Obama administration climate change initiative.
The EPA announcement was a first step towards reversing an Obama administration effort – which only got underway two days after Donald Trump’s election – to gather information about methane, a short-lived but extremely powerful climate pollutant which is responsible for about a quarter of global warming to date.
The agency cited a letter sent by the attorneys general of several conservative and oil-producing states complaining that the information request “furthers the previous administration’s climate agenda and supports … the imposition of burdensome climate rules on existing sites, the cost and expense of which will be enormous.”
Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, said the agency took those complaints seriously. “Today’s action will reduce burdens on businesses while we take a closer look at the need for additional information from this industry,” he said in a statement.
Environmental advocates saw the move as something else entirely.
“With this action, Administrator Pruitt is effectively telling oil and gas companies to go ahead and withhold vital pollution data from the American public,” Mark Brownstein, vice president climate and energy at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in an interview. “This was a good faith effort on the part of the agency to collect additional information on oil and gas industry operations and the pollution that comes from them. [Now], it’s a complete lack of transparency.”
The EPA announcement further advances efforts by the White House and Republicans in Congress to undo the Obama administration’s efforts to regulate emissions from oil and gas production.
Congress, through the Congressional Review Act, is already moving to dismantle an Interior Department regulation, finished very late in the Obama administration, that would have restricted methane emissions from wells drilled on public lands in particular. The EPA did not issue its request for information from companies until November 10, two days after Donald Trump was elected president.
Industry officials were quick to applaud Thursday’s action.
“The exercise imposed significant costs on companies to produce additional paperwork and added unnecessary burdens on producers’ technical teams to prepare and submit rushed comments under enormous time constraints,” said Lee Fuller, executive vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, in a statement.
But the EPA announcement could result in the United States emitting more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere in coming years. At the very least, it means that the United States will not be tracking those emissions as closely.
Not everyone, however, thinks that withdrawing an information request is the same as an intention not to regulate.
“The withdraw doesn’t necessarily means that the Trump folks are not planning to regulate methane from existing oil and gas operations,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, a former EPA deputy administrator and a lawyer with Bracewell LLP, which has clients in the energy industry. “They may well come out with a less-burdensome request at some point, but they needed to withdraw the Obama request right away to ensure that the industry wouldn’t be forced to spend a lot of money to produce information that may not be necessary.”
The Obama administration’s efforts to tackle methane emissions got going in May last year when the EPA announced new regulations to restrict methane emissions from new or modified oil and gas operations. Simultaneously, the agency sent out an information request to existing facilities — by far a bigger source of methane — asking for them to provide extensive information about their emissions and how they were seeking to control them. This was widely considered as a first step towards an eventual regulation of these facilities, as well.
The request for information was a way of “really launching our work to address methane emissions from existing sources,” EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said at the time.
But after Trump’s inauguration, the EPA began to give companies more time to supply that information. Many of those companies assumed that the request itself would ultimately be undone. Now, it has.
Industry officials see that as a positive shift.
“This step will reduce the significant uncertainties and burdens on the oil and gas industry,” Howard Feldman, senior director for regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement. “The United States is leading the world in the production and refining of oil and natural gas and in the reduction of carbon emissions, and we look forward to working with the administration on lawful, common sense regulations that create jobs and benefit American consumers.”
But Vera Pardee, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said the “appalling decision” demonstrates how Pruitt is turning the EPA into an oil industry vending machine.”
“Just one day after oil-friendly state governments complain about efforts to collect methane pollution data, out pops this cancellation,” she said in a statement. “The Trump administration doesn’t want this data because it doesn’t want to rein in oil companies’ massive emissions of this dangerous greenhouse gas.”