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EPA Finalizes Rollback Of Methane Regulations For Oil And Gas Industry

A pump jack near Imperial, Texas in 2017.
Travis Bubenik |Houston Public Media
A pump jack near Imperial, Texas in 2017.

Oil and gas producers in Texas are set to face fewer regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, as the EPA finalized on Thursday its rollback of Obama-era methane regulations for the industry.

Under the new rules, oil and gas producers are no longer required to detect and repair methane leaks from wells, pipelines and storage sites.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. By some estimates, it's 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at heating the atmosphere, though it stays in the atmosphere for less time.

Oil and gas operations make up the largest industrial source of methane emissions in the U.S. — and much of those emissions come from Texas, the country's top oil and gas producer.

"We are the largest oil and gas producing state. We do not have methane regulations in Texas," said Colin Leyden, the Director of Regulatory and Legislative Affairs with the Environmental Defense Fund. "Our only protection comes from these federal rules."

Leyden said tackling methane is one of the most cost-effective ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the oil and gas industry.

"It can be done relatively cheaply — it is being done in other states that have state rules — and with very little to no impact on oil and gas operations," he said. "So it’s really the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to removing climate pollutants right now."

Because methane stays in the atmosphere for a shorter period of time — about a decade — reducing methane emissions can be felt more immediately.

"It’s something that we can do that can have an impact in the very short term on climate," Leyden said.

Methane accounts for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, according to estimates by the EPA. But some research has put into question how the EPA is calculating methane emissions — particularly in the Permian Basin.

Data from the Environmental Defense Fund, found about 3.5% of the gas produced in the Permian Basin is leaked into the air, nearly triple the EPA's nationwide estimate.

At a press conference in Pittsburgh Thursday to announce the rollbacks, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the new rules are meant to ease the regulatory burdens facing the industry. He said the rules will save the oil and gas industry between $17-$19 million a year.

"These are important savings, especially to small and mid-size oil and gas operators," Wheeler said.

The American Petroleum Institute and many independent oil companies — though not all — have supported the rollback.

"We support this revision as it is consistent with the requirements of the Clean Air Act," API Senior Vice President of Policy, Economics and Regulatory Affairs Frank Macchiarola said in a press release. "Our industry continues to drive down methane emissions from operations while meeting America's energy needs every day.”

The trade group said that monitoring for volatile organic compounds will also decrease methane emissions and that monitoring specifically for methane adds “another layer of government regulation.”

But major oil companies like Shell, BP and ExxonMobil have spoken out against the rollbacks and pledged to reduce their methane emissions.

"There is a minimal cost of doing business in the fossil fuel industry," John Hofmeister, the former president of Shell Oil, previously told KUT. "If you can't bear that cost because your business model requires you to emit [methane], then there's something wrong with your business model and you shouldn't be doing business."

Leyden said as other countries start to prioritize cleaner, more climate-friendly gas, Texas gas could lose its competitive advantage.

"These EPA methane rollbacks, they’re not just bad for climate policy, but they’re a competitive disadvantage for U.S. gas in a world that’s demanding cleaner energy," he said.

Though the final rule was published today, it's likely to face legal challenges, and could be undone if presidential candidate Joe Biden wins the election in November.

This story was produced by Houston Public Media.

A copy of the new rules can be viewed, here.