Enlarge /. A natural gas flare from an offshore oil rig in Cook Inlet, Alaska.
The Environmental Protection Agency passed a rule this week lifting Obama-era restrictions on how much methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, oil, and natural gas producer, can be emitted into the atmosphere – even though industry leaders didn't want the changes.
The changes to the rules known as New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) are preventing some segments of the industry from falling below the existing standards at all, and those changes are also lifting methane caps for other segments, the EPA said Thursday.
The oil and gas industry is essentially divided into three major areas of activity: upstream, ie the actual drilling for oil or gas; Midstream, the world of storage and pipelines; and downstream the last mile where products are refined and sold. The current changes apply to the downstream and midstream segments as the EPA is broken down in a graphic (PDF).
The midstream segment, including storage tanks, compressors and pneumatic controls, is no longer regulated at all in the NSPS. Drills in this upstream segment are still subject to regulation, but that regulation is now removing the requirements for companies to monitor, minimize, and repair methane leaks.
The changes will "reduce regulatory burdens on oil and natural gas companies while protecting human health and the environment," according to an EPA press release.
Methane is an incredibly powerful greenhouse gas that traps heat about 30 times more effectively than carbon dioxide. The EPA's own analysis (PDF) estimates that by 2030, around 400,000 additional short tons of methane will be released into the atmosphere according to the new standards compared to the 2016 rule.
However, even that number may not be high enough. Repeated studies have shown that the EPA dramatically underestimates methane emissions from oil and gas exploration.
"The literature has grown together – 80 percent of the publications show methane from oil and gas leaks two to three times higher than the EPA estimates," Cornell University expert Robert Howarth told the New York Times. "It's crazy to reset that rule … 25 percent of man-made warming in the last 20 years is due to methane. Methane is increasing. We need it to decrease."
Meanwhile, the rule change will bring savings and benefits of around $ 83 million per year to the extraction industry, according to the EPA. That's about 0.002 percent of the industry's global sales of $ 3.3 trillion in 2019 – at most, pocket money for businesses.
The big players in the industry don't want this pocket money back either. Representatives from Shell, BP and Exxon Mobil told NPR that they would prefer if the regulation had been left alone. "The negative effects of leaks and fugitive emissions have been widely recognized for years, so it is frustrating and disappointing when management goes a different direction," said Gretchen Watkins, President of Shell's US operations.
Environmental groups like the Environmental Defense Fund are already planning to sue the reverse, and they will likely have companies from multiple states.
"It is not only negligent, but also illegal," said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a written statement. "We're not going to sit still while the EPA allows this super pollutant to quickly warm our atmosphere."