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Public Citizen Urges EPA to Retain Obama-era Methane Rule

Houston-based organizer and researcher Stephanie Thomas pens letter to EPA's Wheeler

On October 17, Public Citizen’s staff joined nearly a hundred other Americans concerned about the climate crisis and pollution at an Environmental Protection Agency hearing in Dallas.

The hearing was the only opportunity to voice in-person opposition to the Trump administration’s plan to rollback a common-sense federal methane rule designed to curb emissions of this potent greenhouse gas. There’s no way we would have missed it. Three Public Citizen employees testified, including our Houston-based researcher Stephanie Thomas. Thomas also submitted a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

It’s worth noting that even the major oil and gas companies oppose this terrible idea. In all, the EPA received 294,162 comments on the Trump administration proposal.

In a nutshell, Stephanie’s letter covered these five points.

  • Trump’s rulemaking fails the American people by preventing meaningful action on the climate crisis.
  • Methane contributes harmful greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.
  • This rulemaking costs taxpayers money by burdening them to fund recovery after climate disasters.
  • The Federal Government must not place corporate profits over human health and biodiversity.
  • Standards must remain for transmission and storage.

You can read the entire letter below.

November 25, 2019

The Honorable Andrew Wheeler, Acting Administrator

Environmental Protection Agency

1200 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20460

Docket # EPA-HQ-OAR-2017-0757

Dear Acting Administrator Wheeler:

Public Citizen, a national public interest organization with more than 400,000 members and supporters, advocates for stronger health, safety, and consumer protections. We oppose the proposed changes to the New Source Performance Standards.

In this letter, we will discuss our opposition to the reconsideration rule based on how:

  • This rulemaking fails the American people by preventing meaningful action on the climate crisis.
  • Methane contributes harmful greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.
  • This rulemaking costs taxpayers money by burdening them to fund recovery after climate disasters.
  • The Federal Government must not place corporate profits over human health and biodiversity.
  • Standards must remain for transmission and storage.

This Rulemaking Fails the American People by Preventing Meaningful Action on the Climate Crisis

The impacts of the climate crisis are becoming more widespread: rising seas, droughts, wildfires, intense rainstorms, and flooding. Earlier this month, a statement signed by over 11,000 scientists warns of “untold suffering due to the climate crisis” and that action is urgently needed.

Over the past several years, Texas has been hit with several major storms and flood events, like Hurricane Harvey, the largest rainfall event in North American history, and Imelda, a recent tropical storm that formed quickly and caused record-setting amounts of flooding in certain parts of the state. Because warmer air holds more water vapor, as the planet warms, more intense rainfall events are becoming the norm, and Texas is at the frontlines of these climatic changes.

In fact, scientists are able to determine the amount by which rising temperatures impact rainfall amounts. In the case of Hurricane Harvey,  climate change had increased Harvey precipitation over land by about 37.7%. Harvey caused 68 people deaths and $125 billion in damage. With massive floods occurring year after year, communities are concerned that they may not be able to rebuild time after time. People are asking themselves, is it worth it to live here anymore?

The flaring and venting of methane from oil and gas infrastructure contributes to increasing greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, which in turn fuel the warming of our planet, which leads to increased risks.

Methane Contributes Harmful Greenhouse Gas Emissions to the Atmosphere

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Methane is 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide over short timescales (~20 years) and its emissions are harming people. The latest evidence shows the U.S. oil and gas industry releases 13 million metric tons of methane from its operations each year— nearly 60 percent higher than estimated by EPA.

Flaring in the Permian Basin has reached an all-time high. According to Rystad, an energy research firm, the oil and gas industry in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico “vented or flared an ‘all time high’ of 750 million cubic feet per day (MMcfd) during the period from July to September, up from less than 100 MMcfd just under a decade ago.” Driving through roads near these shale plays, passersby can see the massive amount of flaring happening as fires dot the landscape – many of these smoking flares, which also release particulate matter and other compounds into the air.

These rollbacks will lead to increased emissions of harmful methane. A recent analysis by Clean Air Task Force (CATF) showed that in the year 2025, the rollbacks will increase methane emissions by 4,300,000 metric tons; volatile organic compounds will increase by 1,000,000 metric tons and hazardous air pollutants will increase by 38,000 metric tons. According to the analysis, the contribution of methane from increased emissions is equivalent to the energy generated by 100 coal-fired power plants.

Furthermore, the CATF analysis highlights challenges with underestimation of emissions by the EPA.’s emissions estimates and shows that the EPA:

Because there are so many methane sources in oil and gas that predate the 2016 rules, the expected quantity of abatement from existing source rules is very large, and therefore if EPA successfully removes the obligation to reduce emissions from existing sources, 2025 emissions will [be] significantly higher.

EPA must consider emissions from all sources in order to accurately estimate the harm that will be done by rolling back the NSPS.

CATF also notes that EPA did not include abnormal process condition emissions, which are well documented, in its GHG inventory for methane. These emissions significantly increase the total. Standards for leak detection and repair help to reduce abnormal process condition emissions, which EPA has not sufficiently accounted for. Abnormal process condition emissions must be included in EPA’s analysis.

This Rulemaking Costs Taxpayers Money by Burdening Them to Fund Recovery after Climate Disasters

This rulemaking is unfair to taxpayers. The current administration is not adequately calculating the cost borne by American citizens dealing with the impacts of global warming. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states:

In 2018, there were 14 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disaster events across the United States, with a total cost of $91 billion… The total cost over the last 5 years (2014-2018) is approximately $500 billion — averaging $100 billion / year, as indicated by the black line below. In addition, 2019 is the fifth consecutive year (2015-2019) in which 10 or more billion-dollar disaster events have impacted the U.S.

Taxpayers pay for these disasters themselves, even though the emissions that contribute to them are preventable.

The Trump administration has shifted how the federal government looks at the social cost of methane. From the Regulatory Impact Assessment:

The EPA estimated the forgone domestic climate benefits from the increase in methane emissions associated with the action using an interim measure of the domestic social cost of methane (SC-CH 4). The SC-CH 4 estimates used here were developed under Executive Order 13783 for use in regulatory analyses until an improved estimate of the impacts of climate change to the U.S. can be developed based on the best available science and economics. 

The best available science is clear: polluters must reduce emissions drastically over the next decade or we face not only warmer temperatures and catastrophic flooding, but incredible health impacts, economic hits, and ecosystem losses. The EPA must take into account a social cost of methane that reflects that reality.

The Federal Government Must Not Place Corporate Profits over Human Health, Biodiversity

Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Climate Assessment provide a grim outlook for humanity and the animal world if we continue with business as usual.

According to the National Climate Assessment, “[c]limate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth.”

If humans can limit anthropogenic emissions such that global temperature rise is limited to 1.5 °C, we can save human and animal life. We must reduce emissions to reduce harm and suffering.

Low-income communities and communities of color that have been historically marginalized are already feeling the impacts of climate change. While the EPA states that it “believes that this proposed action is unlikely to have disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority populations, low-income populations, and/or indigenous peoples,” no detailed analysis is provided in the Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA).

Climate change is a public health threat, and this plan is a dangerous step in the wrong direction. Furthermore, air pollution from oil and gas drilling can trigger asthma attacks and cause respiratory disease. This rollback is an attack on public health.

Standards Must Remain for Transmission and Storage

Methane standards must remain not only for production and processing, but also for transmission and storage. In 2018, community members in West Texas reported the sound of hissing. Over a period of 30 hours, a pipeline released nearly 7 million pounds of gas. Of that, 5.8 million pounds were reported to be methane. Using an emissions factor of 84x to calculate equivalent CO2, those 5.8 million pounds of methane equates to 46,920 cars being driven for one year.

The transmission and storage industries are a massive source of methane emissions, in Texas and beyond. This rule is essential to limiting greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas generally.

Concluding Remarks

Our communities need strong standards to ensure the safety and wellbeing of people across this country. Thus, we strongly oppose these reckless rollbacks. I urge the EPA to reconsider this rollback to protect our communities from the harmful impacts of methane pollution.


Stephanie Thomas, Ph.D.

Public Citizen