Donald Trump. Picture: AFP/NICHOLAS KAMM
Donald Trump. Picture: AFP/NICHOLAS KAMM

Washington — The Trump administration is seeking to abandon regulations designed to stop methane leaks from oil and gas wells, a move opposed not just by environmentalists but even some energy companies that worry it will undermine the appeal of natural gas as climate-friendly fossil fuel.

The proposal, unveiled on Thursday by the Environmental Protection Agency, is the latest assault in President Donald Trump’s campaign to weaken Obama-era measures fighting climate change, building on previous efforts to ease greenhouse gas emission limits on power plants and automobiles.

Although methane is the chief component of natural gas and therefore a valuable energy source in its own right, it is also a powerful heat-trapping pollutant. And the methane that escapes from pipelines, compressor stations and from oil wells has been blamed for as much as a quarter of the planet’s warming.

Methane accounts for just 10% of US greenhouse gas emissions, yet it packs a big punch.

The Trump EPA was already moving on a separate track to relax requirements put in place by the Obama administration that forced energy companies to use specialised equipment at wells and search out methane leaks at the sites. The new measure would go much further, by scrapping those mandates altogether.

EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said the proposal “removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry”.

“The Trump administration recognises that methane is valuable, and the industry has an incentive to minimise leaks and maximise its use,” Wheeler said in an e-mailed news release. “Since 1990, natural gas production in the US  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.”

Independent oil producers

Independent oil producers applauded the EPA’s move, which would short-circuit a legal requirement that similar methane curbs be imposed on a million existing wells, disproportionately affecting smaller companies. Under the EPA’s change, “hundreds of thousands of existing, small business-owned low-production wells wouldn’t be subject to inappropriate regulations” and be compelled “to use technology requirements” geared towards new facilities, said Lee Fuller, executive vice-president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

However, the EPA proposal comes against the wishes of several global energy companies, such as BP and Royal Dutch Shell, which have warned the administration’s retreat on methane threatens to undermine the sales pitch for natural gas as a source of electricity that burns cleaner than coal.

Executives from both companies criticised the proposal Thursday.

“We have to reduce methane emissions for natural gas to realise its full potential in our energy mix,” BP America chair Susan Dio said by e-mail. “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 towards a lower-carbon future.”

Methane accounts for just 10% of US greenhouse gas emissions, yet it packs a big punch. It has more than 84 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide the first two decades it escapes into the atmosphere, and is at least 28 times more powerful over a century. And the oil industry is the leading industrial source of it.

Environmentalists vowed to challenge the move in court, if the EPA finalises its proposal.

“The Trump EPA is eager to give the oil and gas industry a free pass to keep leaking enormous amounts of climate pollution into the air,” said David Doniger, senior strategic director of climate and clean energy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We simply cannot protect our children and grandchildren from climate catastrophe if EPA lets this industry off scot-free.”

The Obama administration took direct aim at the oil industry’s methane emissions in 2016, by imposing requirements for energy companies to frequently seek and plug methane leaks at wells drilled after the regulation was put in place. That came on top of other EPA requirements which focus on paring the release of ozone-forming volatile organic compounds at oil and gas infrastructure but help rein in methane emissions at the same time.

Trump’s EPA would retain those requirements for some oil and gas infrastructure.

Anne Idsal, an acting assistant administrator in charge of the EPA’s air office, stressed on a call with reporters on Thursday that because those other requirements act to rein in methane too, additional methane mandates are duplicative. Concerns by a handful of large oil companies do not  represent the entirety of the industry Idsal said, while stressing that the EPA would not “preclude anybody from going above and beyond” federal requirements.

Under the EPA’s preferred proposal, the agency would effectively exempt a segment of the oil and gas industry from greenhouse gas regulation, lifting burdens for transmission systems and storage tanks. At the same time, the agency is also seeking comment on an alternative approach that would keep regulating that segment of the oil industry.

The EPA said its proposed changes would save the oil and natural gas industry at least $17m a year — and as much as $123m from 2019 through 2025.

More than 40 oil and gas companies have made voluntary commitments to keep methane in check, even as some of them insist federal regulation is essential too.

Environmental advocates argue that voluntary industry steps are inadequate for a fragmented industry. Oil companies with big balance sheets and wells concentrated in a few areas of the US may be better able to absorb the costs of equipment retrofits, methane monitoring and leak-repair programmes than smaller, independent producers with wide-ranging infrastructure.

“We believe sound environmental policies are foundational to the vital role natural gas can play in the energy transition and have made clear our support of 2016 law to regulate methane from new and modified onshore sources,” Gretchen Watkins, president of Shell Oil said in an e-mailed statement.

Shell urged the administration to impose methane requirements on existing wells, too, Watkins said, because the “EPA’s commitment to cost-effective regulations makes it uniquely qualified to write a workable rule”.

Environmental advocates said the EPA proposal will squander time in an urgent fight against climate change.

The EPA is “proposing to give an entire segment of the oil and gas sector a pass from controlling its air pollution”, said Darin Schroeder, an attorney with the Clean Air Task Force. “To justify these actions, EPA is ignoring decades of its own precedent and mountains of evidence that prove that not only is reducing methane from the entire industry easily done, but it is also extremely important if we are to avoid the most catastrophic impacts from climate change.”