Trump Halts Methane Information Collection Request

April 19, 2017

On March 2, 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) brought an effort to gather data regarding methane emissions from the oil and gas industry to a halt. The Obama-era undertaking required more than 15,000 owners and operators of oil and gas production or processing facilities to submit information on their equipment and operations.[1] The massive project is aimed at collecting information that the EPA claims is needed to rein in leaks of methane and to reduce emissions.[2]

 

Under the Obama administration, the information collection request was part of a plan to reduce emissions from existing oil and gas facilities[3] and was seen as a critical step in controlling methane emissions specifically.[4] The project aimed to reduce the United States’ oil and gas methane emissions by up to 45 percent below their 2012 levels by the year 2025.[5] According to the EPA, the request for information was a way of “launching” the agency’s work to address methane emissions from existing sources.[6] In addition to the information collection request, in May of 2016, the EPA announced new regulations to restrict methane emissions from new or modified oil and gas operations.[7] Methane is the main component of natural gas, the second most prevalent greenhouse gas, and the cause of a much larger amount of global warming than carbon dioxide.[8] It is emitted during the production and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil.[9] In fact, natural gas and petroleum systems are the largest source of methane emissions in the United States.[10] Thus, the information resulting from the survey could have played a crucial role in reducing emissions.

 

Additionally, even though natural gas has been viewed as a “bridge” to a post carbon future, methane leaks present an overwhelming but under-recognized problem for the industry.[11] Results from the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) research suggest that methane leaks are significantly higher than previously understood.[12] EDF found that a disproportionate amount of emissions from the oil and gas infrastructure system comes from “super-emitting” sites. An example of one such site arose in late 2015 when nearly 100,000 tons of methane billowed out of a natural gas system in Los Angeles, California.[13] The leak took 112 days to plug and forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of residents, all while receiving relatively little media coverage.[14] These findings led the Obama administration and the EPA to introduce the aforementioned regulations on methane, which included the request for information from the owners and operators of oil and gas producing facilities.

 

The policy reversal by the EPA furthers efforts by the Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress to dismantle the Obama administration’s efforts to regulate emissions.[15] Just after Trump’s inauguration the EPA began to provide oil companies more time to supply the requested information.[16] Thus, the decision to halt the program does not come as a total surprise and signals a retreat from climate change action and comes only a day after a letter sent by the attorneys general of several oil producing states.[17] The states claimed that the request imposed burdensome climate rules on existing costs.[18] Further, the oil and gas industry complained that the information collection request was time-consuming and expensive due to the additional paperwork and the burdens placed on the technical teams.[19] EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt stated that the policy reversal would reduce burdens on states and businesses, and would allow for the EPA to take a closer look at whether further information is needed.[20]

 

Overall it is unclear what effect the decision will have. Those in favor of the policy reversal argue that the action will reduce burdens and uncertainty, while environmental advocates claim that the move is an attempt to decrease transparency and withhold vital information from the public.[21] The announcement will likely result in the United States emitting more greenhouse gases, and at the very least means the United States will not be tracking the emissions as closely. However, it is possible that the Trump administration may come out with a less burdensome request aimed at similar results – only time will tell.


[1] Marianne Lavelle, Trump’s EPA Halts Request for Methane Information from Oil and Gas Producers, Inside Climate News (Mar. 3, 2017), https://insideclimatenews.org/news/03032017/scott-pruitt-environmental-protection-agency-methane-greenhouse-gas-climate-change.

[2] Michael Phillis, EPA Withdraws Info Request Key to Methane Rules, Law360 (Mar. 3, 2017, 5:34 PM), https://www.law360.com/articles/897804/epa-withdraws-info-request-key-to-methane-rules.

[3] Ellen M. Gilmer, EPA Drops Request for Methane Information from Oil and Gas Industry, Scientific American (Mar. 3, 2017), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/epa-drops-request-for-methane-information-from-oil-and-gas-industry/.

[4] Michael Phillis, EPA Withdraws Info Request Key to Methane Rules, Law360 (March 3, 2017, 5:34 PM), https://www.law360.com/articles/897804/epa-withdraws-info-request-key-to-methane-rules.

[5] Chris Mooney, Trump could roll back Obama rules on methane, a potent greenhouse gas, The Washington Post (Nov. 11, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/11/11/this-is-the-other-way-that-trump-could-worsen-global-warming/?utm_term=.cb1cd51c7951.

[6] Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis, EPA halts inquiry into oil and gas industry emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, The Washington Post (Mar. 2, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/03/02/epa-halts-inquiry-into-oil-and-gas-industry-emissions-of-methane-a-powerful-greenhouse-gas/?utm_term=.8def178e3915.

[7] Id.

[8] Chris Mooney, Trump could roll back Obama rules on methane, a potent greenhouse gas, The Washington Post (Nov. 11, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/11/11/this-is-the-other-way-that-trump-could-worsen-global-warming/?utm_term=.cb1cd51c7951.

[9] Overview of Greenhouse Gases, EPA, https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases.

[10] Id.

[11] Methane leaks, a dirty little secret, The Economist (Jul. 23, 2016), http://www.economist.com/news/business/21702493-natural-gass-reputation-cleaner-fuel-coal-and-oil-risks-being-sullied-methane.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis, EPA halts inquiry into oil and gas industry emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, The Washington Post (Mar. 2, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/03/02/epa-halts-inquiry-into-oil-and-gas-industry-emissions-of-methane-a-powerful-greenhouse-gas/?utm_term=.8def178e3915.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis, EPA halts inquiry into oil and gas industry emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, The Washington Post (Mar. 2, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/03/02/epa-halts-inquiry-into-oil-and-gas-industry-emissions-of-methane-a-powerful-greenhouse-gas/?utm_term=.8def178e3915.

[19] Ellen M. Gilmer, EPA Drops Request for Methane Information from Oil and Gas Industry, Scientific American (Mar. 3, 2017), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/epa-drops-request-for-methane-information-from-oil-and-gas-industry/.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

Caylye Nordling is a second year law student at the University of Texas School of Law. She graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2014, and will be spending the summer in New York City with Weil, Gotshal, and Manges.