EPA proposals on methane need to be strengthened before they’re adopted

Opinion: Methane leaks don’t abide by state boundaries, so one state’s problem impacts everyone. Strong regulation at the federal level is necessary.

In this March 12, 2020, file photo, the sun shines through clouds above a shale gas drilling site in St. Mary's, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

In this March 12, 2020, file photo, the sun shines through clouds above a shale gas drilling site in St. Mary's, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

The last seven years were the hottest ever recorded on the planet, and a brutally hot summer is on tap for the Philadelphia region again. We know that dangerous heat is coming because of climate change. We have already baked in 1.2 degrees Celsius of warming from pre-industrial levels even if all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide magically stopped tomorrow.

Alarmingly, GHG emissions – both globally and in Pennsylvania – are on the rise again, especially methane leaks from the oil and gas industry. Millions of tons of methane are leaked into the atmosphere every year from oil and gas infrastructure and operations. The oil and gas industry emits about 16 million metric tons annually in the US with 1.1 million metric tons in Pennsylvania alone. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas – up to 87 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat when it’s released into the atmosphere.

Even though the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court issued a radical decision on June 30th that limits the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to determine the “best system of emission reduction” under section 111 of the Clean Air Act, the agency still has plenty of authority and discretion to tackle methane pollution.

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The EPA has a chance right now to substantially lower methane emissions through two recently proposed rules – one for new sources in the oil and gas industry and one for existing sources. However, these rules must be strengthened before being finalized.

This new proposal shows the EPA has pivoted away from its pro-industry stance under the previous administration led first by the scandalous Scott Pruit and then by former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler. Now EPA has returned to its commitment to protect public health and combat climate change under Administrator Michael Regan.

However, while the current proposal is a step in the right direction, tackling methane emissions to aggressively fight the climate crisis demands more ambitious standards. The EPA must listen to the more than 470,000 people who submitted comments in support of the strongest methane rule possible under the Clean Air Act during the public comment period that closed in January.

Clean Air Council and many other impacted residents and environmental organizations across the country believe these rules are not sufficiently comprehensive and will leave a significant amount of methane emissions unchecked.

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The proposal especially lacks strong oversight for small wells with leak-prone equipment, which under this rule would likely be exempt from stringent, ongoing inspection requirements. Low-producing wells combine to make up over 50% of methane emissions nationwide, despite producing only 6% of America’s oil and gas.

Even though Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry is concentrated in the western and northeastern parts of the state, the effects of methane pollution and the climate crisis are far reaching, including extreme heat that creates unhealthy conditions in cities every year. GHGs like methane, the main component of fossil gas, are fueling the climate crisis and causing dangerously high temperatures and the conditions for more severe and more frequent severe weather patterns that can lead to more landslides, flooding, and tornadoes.

Methane leaks are a problem for everyone in every zip code. People living near oil and gas operations are directly exposed to methane emissions and harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs), like the carcinogen benzene, which leaks alongside methane.  Direct exposure is particularly hazardous, but people living in cities experience a different set of impacts.  VOCs also contribute to ground-level ozone, the main component of smog, that can worsen respiratory diseases such as asthma or emphysema and increase the risk of heart disease and heart attacks.

In addition, the “heat island effect” happens when cities that already struggle with poor air quality experience higher temperatures than surrounding areas due to the higher number of buildings and streets that absorb and re-emit heat. High temperatures increase the production of ground-level ozone in urban areas, and another rise of 0.5 degrees Celsius would trigger an increase in ozone-related sickness and death. This disproportionately affects low-income residents and communities of color in cities where existing socio-economic issues are worsened by severe weather.

Without strong federal rules establishing a protective baseline, states would be left to enact their own rules resulting in a patchwork of areas with pro-industry lawmakers and agency officials putting profits over public health. Unfortunately, methane leaks don’t abide by state boundaries, so one state’s methane problem impacts everyone.

Look no further than Pennsylvania’s struggles to enact its own state methane rules, which is a prime example of why strong federal methane rules are so critical. Pennsylvania is a leading gas-producing state, second only to Texas. Highly partisan state politics, influenced by a small group of conventional well owners, are now hindering the implementation of strong methane rules in Pennsylvania.

Our state is more than three years past the deadline to meet a requirement under federal law to enact an oil and gas rule reflecting guidance issued by the Obama EPA in 2016 and is now facing harsh sanctions, including significant loss of highway funding, from the Biden EPA.

It’s time to work together to aggressively reduce methane emissions. Every summer doesn’t have to be hotter and wetter than the last, but without EPA adopting strong and comprehensive federal methane rules for the oil and gas industry, the cycle will continue and we should prepare for our environment to continue to change for the worse. The EPA needs to tackle this issue head-on with the full force of the Clean Air Act to reduce methane emissions before it’s too late.

Joseph Otis Minott is the Executive Director and Chief Counsel of Clean Air Council.

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