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EPA Proposes Changes To Oil & Gas-Relevant Methane Rule

A gas flare, used to burn off flammable gas -- on Highway 59 from Gillette
Cooper McKim
Wyoming Public Radio

The Trump Administration is looking to change Obama-era national air quality standards for the oil and gas industry that limited methane - a pollutant considered the second largest contributor to climate change. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed changes Thursday to the 2016 New Source Performance Standards (NSPS), influenced at the time by Wyoming's regulations.

Proposed amendments include removing methane emissions limits for certain oil and gas activities including production and processing segments. EPA would hold onto emissions limits for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which contribute to ozone pollution.

<--break->The agency said the proposal will save money while maintaining health and environmental standards.

"EPA's proposal… removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry," EPA Administration Andrew Wheeler said. "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 percent."

The EPA said there's already an incentive for producers to reduce methane emissions: capturing methane helps keep natural gas in the pipelines. The agency's calculations find the proposed amendments would save the oil and gas industry up to $19 million per year.

Major energy companies including Exxon, Shell, and BP have come out against the proposed change. Jon Goldstein, director of regulatory and legislative affairs for the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund, said a national standard gives regulatory consistency.

"[Energy companies] understand that fair, across the board, requirements are the way to ensure natural gas has a role to play in the energy future," he said. "Without these requirements in place, it really calls into question: what role natural gas can play as we transition to cleaner forms of energy."

Goldstein said the proposed changes would also put more pressure on states to step up with an answer. Wyoming has its own methane regulations, including recently expanded leak detection requirements.

"With EPA retreating, it's going to put that much more onus on the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and Governor Gordon, to step up and help fill that gap," Goldstein said, adding Wyoming has acted to regulate new and modified wells, but not existing ones.

Keith Guille, public information officer for Wyoming's Department of Environmental Quality, said the department still needs time to see what the proposal means for the state. He said a change, if any, is still a long way off.

Pete Obermueller, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, echoed that DEQ has been regulating methane and VOCs for years and that hasn't changed. He added that emissions have already been decreasing as oil and gas production increases.

Wyoming's congressional delegation all came out in support of the proposed rollbacks. U.S. Senator Mike Enzi said, "the current methane venting and flaring rules created under the Obama Administration were excessive and overly burdensome."

The revised rule's current form is not set in stone. Once it's published in the Federal Register, that begins 60 days of public comment.

Before Wyoming, Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He's reported breaking news segments and features for several national NPR news programs. Cooper is the host of the limited podcast series Carbon Valley. Cooper studied Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.

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