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EPA Withdraws Request for Methane Data

The Environmental Protection Agency has withdrawn an Obama-era request for methane emissions information from 15,000 oil and gas companies nationwide — a decision the Trump administration made after 11 states said the request amounted to “harassment.”

The EPA responded to the states’ complaints within one day, saying it will look into whether it’s necessary for the agency to collect information about the industry’s methane emissions.

Flaring excess natural gas at oil well sites in North Dakota is source of methane emissions causing climate change.
Credit: Tim Evanson/flickr

The withdrawal on Thursday is a sign that the EPA under new administrator Scott Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who has expressed doubts about established climate science, is beginning to reconsider and possibly reverse the Obama administration’s efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

The decision will hobble the EPA’s ability to accurately calculate methane emissions in its annual tally of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, which is provided to the United Nations to track America’s progress in addressing climate change, said Danny Cullenward, an energy economist at the Carnegie Institution for Science.

Oil and gas wells, pipelines and other equipment leak a large, but not fully understood, quantity of methane into the atmosphere. Methane can be a serious climate change problem because it has 86 times the power to warm the atmosphere over a span of 20 years compared to carbon dioxide.

The EPA’s annual climate pollution tally has long been considered imperfect because its methods were known to be unable to fully capture all of America’s greenhouse gas emissions. The Obama administration tried to revise those methods, but more revisions are necessary in order to more effectively account for all U.S. emissions, Cullenward said.

As part of the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan, the EPA began to take steps last year to better understand how oil and gas equipment leaks methane and how those leaks can be plugged as a way to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The agency announced last May that it would strictly regulate the oil and gas industry’s methane emissions, a process that would begin by requesting 15,000 industry owners and operators nationwide to provide information about their methane emissions and the technology they could use to control them. The information request was finalized in November, sparking pushback from the industry.

Oil wells in North Dakota's Bakken shale oil fields are major sources of methane emissions. These wells are near Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Credit: National Parks Conservation Association/flickr

“This information request furthers the previous administration’s climate agenda and supports the next and most onerous phase of the Obama administration’s regulations targeting the oil and gas industry — the imposition of burdensome climate rules on existing sites, the cost of which will be enormous,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote in a letter to Pruitt on Wednesday.

The letter was signed by Paxton and the governors or attorneys general of Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and West Virginia.

“We believe the EPA’s requests to be an unnecessary and onerous burden on oil and gas producers that is more harassment than a genuine search for pertinent and appropriate information,” Paxton wrote.

Pruitt responded, saying the EPA takes the oil and gas industry’s concerns seriously and the withdrawal of the information request will reduce burdens on business.

Recently released emails from Pruitt’s tenure as Oklahoma attorney general reveal his close relationship with the oil and gas industry. In 2014, the New York Times reported that Pruitt accused the EPA of overestimating the quantity of methane emissions the oil and gas industry emits — claims he made by using a letter written by lawyers for a large oil and gas company.

“The notion that EPA won't be collecting and monitoring data is cause for concern,” Cullenward said. “How is the public supposed to be confident that EPA policy is striking an appropriate balance without any data?”

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