The Environmental Protection Agency Wants to Repeal its Methane Emissions Limits

Texas, the nation’s largest oil and gas producer, doesn’t otherwise regulate the potent greenhouse gas.

Texas, the top oil and gas producer in the U.S., also accounts for nearly a third of the country’s refining capacity.
Texas, the top oil and gas producer in the U.S., also accounts for nearly a third of the country’s refining capacity. Jaime R. Carrero /The Victoria Advocate via AP

Texas, the nation’s largest oil and gas producer, doesn’t otherwise regulate the potent greenhouse gas.

Texas, the top oil and gas producer in the U.S., also accounts for nearly a third of the country’s refining capacity.
Texas, the top oil and gas producer in the U.S., also accounts for nearly a third of the country’s refining capacity. Jaime R. Carrero /The Victoria Advocate via AP

When it comes to climate change, what happens in Texas—the nation’s top oil and gas producer—increasingly doesn’t stay in Texas. The Lone Star state accounts for nearly a third of the country’s refining capacity and emits more greenhouse gasses than any other state. Now, those emissions are poised to increase, as the Environmental Protection Agency proposed on Thursday to repeal an Obama-era rule that limits methane emissions from the industry.

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. It leaks at nearly every stage of drilling and production. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, repealing existing methane limits could lead to an annual increase of 5 million metric tons of methane emitted, which would be enough gas to heat about 4 million homes.

The proposed rollback is a political maneuver by the Trump administration that will make it harder for the next administration to regulate methane. The EPA argues that the Obama administration, which enacted the regulation, never had the authority to regulate the gas since it wasn’t technically considered a pollutant under the federal Clean Air Act.

Hillcrest, a neighborhood in Corpus Christi
Residents of the Hillcrest neighborhood in Corpus Christi live in close proximity to two oil refineries.  Jen Reel

Without the federal law on the books, there will be effectively no methane-specific regulations in Texas, says Colin Leyden, who works on regulation and legislative affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund.

“The stakes are more serious in Texas than anywhere else,” said Cyrus Reed, the Sierra Club’s Texas conservation director. “States like Colorado and Pennsylvania have passed state regulations to take care of this. New Mexico shares the Permian Basin with Texas, and is also actively regulating methane.” In addition to being a powerful greenhouse gas, methane can pose health problems for fenceline communities near industrial facilities, as well as the workers who breathe in the odorless, colorless gas.

Natural gas wells are regulated by both the Railroad Commission (RRC), which issues permits, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which monitors emissions. Both are notoriously lax at enforcing the state’s already weak environmental regulations.

Texas laws already give broad leeway to state oil and gas facilities to vent or flare natural gas. Venting, or allowing natural gas to dissipate directly into the atmosphere, tends to happen as a well is being drilled and constructed—particularly at oil wells, since the natural gas escaping from the ground is seen as a byproduct compared to the more valuable oil, says Reed. The RRC allows oil and gas facilities to vent natural gas without reporting quantities while the well is being drilled, and for 10 days after it’s complete.

The more common practice is flaring—the process of burning off excess quantities of natural gas which can also occur during unexpected leaks or equipment malfunctions. When natural gas is flared, the methane it contains is converted into another greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. It’s like being forced to choose between being poisoned slowly, or all at once: the outcome in both situations is the same.

Under the Obama era-rule, there was a federal cap on the amount that facilities could emit from leaks, flares, and vents, plus requirements to upgrade equipment used to store and transport gas. Now there won’t be. State laws on overall emissions from oil and gas wells tend to be loose and poorly enforced.

According to a recent analysis of satellite data from the Environmental Defense Fund, facilities in Texas flared over 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas in 2017—but reported nearly half that amount to state agencies during the same time frame. Another study from Texas A&M researchers found similar discrepancies using satellite data from 2012 to 2015. (Unlike the EDF study, the A&M study also included data on venting.)

And as the Observer reported in May, oil and gas companies have been exploiting regulatory loopholes at TCEQ for years. They often get away with excess pollution of harmful, carcinogenic chemicals, including volatile organic compounds (VOC), by claiming that the emissions are related to startup or shutdown procedures that are exempted from regulations. Ninety-seven percent of emissions events in 2017 used that defense. Without a federal emissions rule, it seems unlikely that the state will step in to overhaul the system. The federal government directed TCEQ to close the loophole in 2015, and it still hasn’t.

flaring
Distillation towers and flare at the Shell Deer Park Refinery.  Flickr/ Roy Luck

“I can’t tell you that this [repeal] will be much worse for Texas,” said Sharon Wilson, an environmental advocate who was involved in a campaign to ban fracking in Denton. “It’s already pretty bad.” She’s monitored emissions from oil and gas facilities in the Permian Basin and found high methane emissions, as well as other carcinogenic VOCs. “These violations impact people all around the world and need to be reined in.”

An unexpected source of criticism came from Exxon, Shell, and BP—all three of which have their U.S. headquarters in Texas. These companies have invested in equipment that can recapture leaking natural gas at various stages of production, increasing the amount of product they can sell to power plants. Shell’s U.S. president told the Washington Post that the company is committed to reducing its methane emissions from 0.9 percent to 0.2 percent in the next six years, with or without federal regulations. But the rollback could be beneficial to the smaller oil and gas operators in the state, says Reed, since those companies see the Obama-era rules as an unnecessary burden.

“Not only is the rollback bad for Texas, but it’s bad for the industry’s case for natural gas as a low-carbon transition fuel,” Leyden said. The EPA says that by rescinding the methane regulations, the oil and gas industry can expect to put at least $17 million a year back into its pockets—some of which might otherwise have gone toward investments in detecting, capturing, or preventing methane leaks.

In the meantime, whether methane is captured at leaks, burned, and converted into carbon dioxide, or allowed to dissipate directly into the atmosphere, greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise, pushing our atmosphere and climate further and further away from normal.

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Amal Ahmed is the summer 2019 editorial fellow at the Texas Observer, reporting on climate and the environment. Originally from Dallas, she has a journalism degree from Northwestern University and previously spent a year at the Atlantic as an editorial fellow on the family and education desk.


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