EPA Axes Obama-Era Requirement to Provide Methane Data

The changing of the guard at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has prompted the withdrawal of a request for owners and operators in the oil and gas industry to provide information on equipment and emissions at existing oil and gas operations. The withdrawal is effective immediately, meaning owners and operators — including those who have received an extension to their due dates for providing the information — are no longer required to respond.

The move was initiated by new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in response to a letter sent by the attorneys general of nine oil-producing states, as well as the governors of Mississippi and Kentucky, in which they claim that the request “furthers the previous administration’s climate agenda and supports … the imposition of burdensome climate rules on existing sites, the cost and expense of which will be enormous.”

“By taking this step, EPA is signaling that we take these concerns seriously and are committed to strengthening our partnership with the states,” Pruitt said. “Today’s action will reduce burdens on businesses while we take a closer look at the need for additional information from this industry.”

Under the previous administration, EPA sent letters to more than 15,000 owners and operators in the oil and gas industry, requiring them to provide information. The information request comprised of two parts: an “operator survey” that asked for basic information on the numbers and types of equipment at all onshore oil and gas production facilities in the U.S. and a “facility survey” asking for more detailed information on sources of methane emissions and emission control devices or practices in use by a representative sampling of facilities in several segments of the oil and gas industry. EPA is withdrawing both parts of the information request.

While this may signal a victory for members of the oil and gas industry resistant to change, environmental advocates see it as a major setback. “With this action, Administrator Pruitt is effectively telling oil and gas companies to go ahead and withhold vital pollution data from the American public,” said Mark Brownstein, vice president climate and energy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “This was a good faith effort on the part of the agency to collect additional information on oil and gas industry operations and the pollution that comes from them. [Now], it’s a complete lack of transparency.”

The announcement, which has been applauded by industry officials, follows a move by Congress through the Congressional Review Act to rescind an Interior Department regulation that would have restricted methane emissions from wells drilled on public lands. Though it will certainly reduce the amount of paperwork and costs associated with the request, Administrator Pruitt’s decision could lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the inability to carefully track them.

Former EPA deputy administrator and a lawyer with Bracewell LLP Jeffrey Holmstead, however, believes that the withdrawal doesn’t necessarily indicate an unwillingness to regulate methane in the oil and gas industry. “They may well come out with a less-burdensome request at some point, but they needed to withdraw the Obama request right away to ensure that the industry wouldn’t be forced to spend a lot of money to produce information that may not be necessary.”

However, not everyone shares his positive outlook. “Just one day after oil-friendly state governments complain about efforts to collect methane pollution data, out pops this cancellation,” Vera Paradee, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said. “The Trump administration doesn’t want this data because it doesn’t want to rein in oil companies’ massive emissions of this dangerous greenhouse gas.”

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