House panel asks whether new EPA methane emissions rules are needed

A US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology was divided along party lines over whether the Environmental Protection Agency’s new oil and gas methane emissions rules are clearly necessary or simply a solution in search of a problem. Witnesses also offered conflicting assessments at the Sept. 15 hearing.

“Rather than expedite methane regulation, EPA should take a breath and realize that the best available science does not support new rulemaking,” Environment Subcommittee Chairman Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) said in his opening statement. “But once again, EPA is back at it with cherry-picking and fudging data to fit a politically driven agenda aided by a cabal of establishment environmentalists.”

In her opening statement, Ranking Minority Member Suzanne Bonamici said, “Methane leaks and releases are a real problem for many Americans all over this country on a daily basis. While the new rule only addresses methane emissions at new, reconstructed, and modified oil and gas sources, it is an important first step to ensure that the problems of today are not the problems of tomorrow.”

Witnesses generally agreed that methane emissions need to be controlled. It’s about 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide in climate damage terms during the first 20 years following its release, Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategic planning at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in his written testimony.

“While CO2 represents a continuing, long-term threat in the form of accumulated, long-lived, and rising atmospheric concentrations, methane drives near-term climate effects. The result is that 25% of the global warming we are experiencing now is due to methane emissions,” he said, adding that EPA said oil and gas activity represents a third of US methane emissions—the largest of all US industrial sources.

But two other witnesses strongly questioned whether EPA’s directing its regulation toward oil and gas activity was justified. “The White House justifies these new regulations by arguing that methane traps 50-75 times as much heat as CO2 in the atmosphere over 20 years, thereby contributing significantly to human-induced global warming,” said Bernard L. Weinstein, Maguire Energy Institute associate director at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business in Dallas.

“But if the goal is to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the oil and gas industry is the wrong whipping boy,” he declared.

‘An astounding accomplishment’

Oil and gas industry methane releases represent only about 3.4% of all US GHG emissions, which reached a 25-year low last year, Weinstein said in his written testimony. “This is an astounding accomplishment, considering the American economy is 75% larger than it was in 1990 while domestic oil and gas production has nearly doubled over the past decade. What’s more, total US methane emissions have dropped 15% since 1990,” he said.

“Despite the success of the industry in reducing methane emissions, [it] is under threat of various regulations that will impose significant costs without commensurate benefits,” American Petroleum Institute Upstream Director Erik Milito said in his written testimony. “[EPA] recently finalized a suite of new regulations targeting our industry.”

Milito said each of the EPA rules—Control Techniques Guidelines, Source Determination, Minor Source Tribal New Source Review, and the New Source Performance Standard for the Oil and Gas Sector—will likely have a significant impact on the industry’s operations. “Collectively, they have the potential to hinder our ability to continue providing the energy our nation demands,” he warned.

But Holstein noted that doing something now about methane emissions, including complying with EPA’s new rules, can be accomplished at low costs with existing technology. “Moreover, as information about the specific sources of methane leakage continues to improve, prevention, detection, and repair methods and technologies will also improve, bringing prices down even farther,” he said.

“Regulation is never cost-free, and the new methane rules are no exception,” Weinstein said. “With oil and gas prices close to 10-year lows, producers and service companies laying off tens of thousands of workers, and bankruptcies rising, does it make sense to increase the cost of staying in business?”

Milito said, “Methane emission reduction trends by the industry are now observable despite major increases in the production and use of gas. Improved policy measures, removal of bureaucratic barriers, and regulatory certainty are imperative to allow these trends to accelerate and lead to even greater GHG emission reductions, as well as the benefits of reduced air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particular matter.

“Innovation and technological advancement through the free market, rather than command-and-control regulations, have proven to be the solution to environmental questions and should be embraced by regulators and policymakers moving forward,” the API official suggested.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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