Thursday, August 13, 2020

EPA will Rescind 2016 Methane Regulations

It was widely reported in the press that and anonymous administration official leaked that the U.S. EPA is preparing to release new rules that would rescind regulations from the 2016 New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for the oil and natural gas industry. The regulations were adopted in 2016 under former President Obama amid the increasing concern for the expansion of the natural gas industry. These new regulations were expected after the U.S. EPA proposed several modifications and opened a comment period last year.

At the time EPA proposed two actions:
  1. The agency would remove from the regulations sources of methane in the transmission and storage segment of the oil and gas industry. These sources include transmission compressor stations, pneumatic controllers, and underground storage vessels. The agency noted at the time that including these sources to the 2016 rule was not appropriate because that the agency did not make a separate finding to determine that the emissions from the transmission and storage segment of the industry causes or significantly contributes to air pollution that may endanger public health or welfare.
  2. The agency also would rescind emissions limits for methane, from the production and processing segments of the industry but would keep emissions limits for ozone-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These sources include well completions, pneumatic pumps, pneumatic controllers, gathering and boosting compressors, natural gas processing plants and storage tanks. The controls to reduce VOCs emissions also reduce methane at the same time, so the EPA stated that separate methane limitations for that segment of the industry are redundant.

At that time EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said: “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.”

According to the U.S. EPA, methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas and accounted for about 10% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Methane is emitted by natural sources such as wetlands and the breakdown of organic material, as well as from leakage from natural gas systems, growing rice, waste disposal and the raising of livestock. However, as you can see on the right, the oil-and-gas industry has long been the nation’s largest emitter of methane. We care about methane because climate scientists estimate that the gas is responsible for about one quarter of the global warming that has happened since industrialization.

Though no separate determination was made, there have been massive leaks from natural gas storage facilities. The most recent large release was the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Facility leak from October 2015 through February 2016 when at least 109,000 metric tons of methane was released. The equipment was not adequately maintained, but the 2016 regulations would not have prevented that failure. Different regulations limiting the life of storage vessels are needed to address that.   

The amount of methane in Earth’s atmosphere continues to rise. Concentrations of methane now exceed 1875 parts per billion, about 2.5 times as much as was in the atmosphere in the 1850s. This data is from the study liked above. The lead author of the study was R.B. (Rob) Jackson who is Stanford’s Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor. He is also the chair of  the Global Carbon Project (, which is working to measure and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Dr. Jackson research projects include establishing a global network of methane tower measurements at more than 80 sites worldwide and measuring and reducing methane emissions from oil and gas wells, city streets, and homes and buildings. I sincerely hope that this regulatory change does not undermine these efforts. 

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