To the delight of the Texas oil and gas industry, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled long-anticipated plans Thursday to rescind Obama-era requirements that energy companies slash emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is exacerbating climate change.
In 2016, the Obama administration finalized rules designed to cut methane emissions nearly in half by 2025 by requiring that the oil and gas industry limit releases of methane and volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs, at well sites and from other equipment used for the production, storage and transport of fossil fuels. (Texas sued over the rule just a few months later.)
The rule that the EPA officially proposed Wednesday, which has been expected since President Donald Trump took office in 2016, would keep intact emissions limits of ozone-forming VOCs on equipment to transport and store fossil fuels, but it entirely rescinds emissions limits for methane across the energy sector. The action was taken in response to an executive order by Trump that directed federal agencies to pinpoint regulations that "burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources," the EPA said in a news release Thursday.
The rule would save the oil and gas industry up to $19 million a year through 2025, it noted.
“EPA’s proposal delivers on President Trump’s executive order and removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement. “The Trump Administration recognizes that methane is valuable, and the industry has an incentive to minimize leaks and maximize its use. Since 1990, natural gas production in the United States has almost doubled while methane emissions across the natural gas industry have fallen by nearly 15%. Our regulations should not stifle this innovation and progress.”
While most U.S. efforts to fight climate change have focused on carbon dioxide, which accounts for the vast majority of greenhouse gases emitted in the country, methane — the primary component of natural gas — is much better at trapping heat. Scientists estimate that one pound of methane has more than 20 times the impact on global warming than one pound of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.
The Obama-era rule was extremely unpopular with the Texas oil and gas industry, particularly among smaller operators with lesser means to install equipment necessary to monitor leaks — though major energy companies including Irving-based ExxonMobil have urged the EPA to maintain regulations for fear they will undercut a larger message the industry has cultivated that natural gas is a cleaner burning fuel source.
The state's major industry groups hailed the move Thursday.
“The oil and natural gas industry is already successfully reducing methane emissions, even during a time when natural gas production doubled," Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said in a statement. "The industry recognizes the need for environmentally responsible oil and natural gas development and we are accomplishing emissions progress through voluntary programs, innovations and efficiencies."
Ed Longanecker, president of the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association, said in a statement, "The Trump Administration continues to scale back unnecessary, burdensome regulations hindering growth of the U.S. oil and gas industry, while at the same time strengthening environmental protections in the United States."
Meanwhile, environmental groups described the move as dangerous and backward-looking.
“This proposal is irresponsible, dangerous and out of step with calls from oil and gas industry leaders to preserve and strengthen federal methane rules," Matt Watson, vice president of energy at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement. "Without a strong federal framework in place, the case for natural gas evaporates."
Methane from human activities is responsible for 25% of the warming trend associated with climate change, according to EDF. Recent research by the group has shown that cumulative methane leaks in the United States are much larger than government estimates suggest.
The Trump administration's latest rollback of Obama-era environmental regulations is particularly relevant to Texas, which leads the nation in both energy production and greenhouse gas emissions. Methane emissions are notoriously difficult to track, but Texas is known to be a large contributor — and methane emissions have almost certainly increased amid a huge spike in natural gas flaring in West Texas. That increase, driven by low natural gas prices and a pipeline shortage, has bedeviled the Texas Railroad Commission, the state's oil and gas regulatory agency.
Disclosure: The Texas Oil and Gas Association and the Environmental Defense Fund have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.