In September, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implemented new rules that rescind regulations on methane gas emissions. The regulations had been put into place to mitigate fugitive emissions and other methane sources at oil and gas sites. Among the changes, producers are no longer required to detect methane leaks in their systems, nor are they required to have procedures in place to search for leaks.
The new rules, which took effect on September 14, 2020, apply to wells drilled after 2016. They also remove the largest pipelines, storage sites, and other parts of the transmission system from EPA oversight of smog and greenhouse gas emissions. The changes also ease reporting requirements for the industry and, for some facilities, change how often a plant must check for leaks of other pollutants.
According to the EPA, the new rules “are designed to make it simpler and less burdensome for the oil and natural gas industry to comply with the New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for the oil and natural gas industry.”
As a reminder, the NSPS was adopted in 2016 under former President Obama amid concerns about the impact of methane gas leaks on climate change. As US drilling and production reached new highs, the EPA implemented new rules requiring companies to install technologies that monitor and limit inadvertent emissions of methane during the production and transmission process of natural gas, and required new practices for reducing emissions, such as regular inspections for leaks.
Under the new changes, leak monitoring is still required, but not for methane directly. While the methane mandate is gone, well-monitoring requirements for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) remain.
While the rule changes were celebrated by some small- and mid-sized oil and gas producers, which argued that the costs to implement the 2016 requirements made it unprofitable to drill in some places, larger producers were less jovial. International majors such as ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and BP favored retaining the rules.
In a 2019 public comment on a draft of the rule, Joe Ellis, a vice president at BP, urged the EPA “to continue to regulate methane emissions from new sources and to adopt a rule for existing sources. EPA regulation of methane across the value chain is the right thing to do for the environment, will support consistent regulation across the US, and can be cost effectively achieved with new technology.”
Exxon urged the EPA in 2018 to maintain core elements of the Obama administration’s policy.
Gretchen Watkins, the US chair for Shell, who has urged the Trump administration to regulate methane emissions, said, “the negative impacts of methane have been widely acknowledged for years, so it’s frustrating and disappointing to see the administration go in a different direction.”
Major producers see the lack of climate regulation as undermining to their efforts to position natural gas as the cleanest fossil fuel, potentially impacting efforts to produce and sell natural gas around the world. They have vowed to continue their efforts to curb emissions, regardless of the relaxed regulations.
Ultimately, the timing of the reversal is being seen as part of the Trump administration’s mad dash to roll back environmental regulations ahead of November’s US presidential election. The fact the signing ceremony took place in Pennsylvania, USA, an important swing state in the election, makes the decision seem less about what is best for the industry and more about what is best for Trump’s reelection.
As an industry, we are smarter than this. Politicians will come and go, but the planet we inhabit will not – and the court of public opinion is always in session. Despite the loud voice of protest, the natural gas industry is a good steward of Planet Earth and remains the cleanest reliable fuel source we have. Equipment operators spend millions of dollars per year finding and eliminating fugitive emissions. New products and technologies are introduced that have been specifically developed to improve equipment efficiency and performance.
We have made considerable strides to improve public perception. Changing the rules undermines the continuous implementation of products and practices that lower emission levels. This move is stepping backward in the battle of public perception and will become yet another arrow in the quiver of protesters and fossil fuel naysayers.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Third Coast Publishing Group and/or Gas Compression Magazine. (In other words, questions and concerns should be sent directly to the author. Praises and accolades should be sent to company management.)