The Trump EPA Again Decided to Prioritize Oil Companies over Public Health

A drilling rig is seen in Springville, Pennsylvania, October 2011.

Just days after releasing a budget that is an assault on our nation’s clean air and water, President Donald Trump once again took steps to prioritize the oil and gas industry at the expense of the health and well-being of communities across the country. On May 31, 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formally announced that it would halt and reconsider a requirement—set in 2016—that oil and gas companies detect and repair leaks of dangerous methane and other air pollution at their new operations. The EPA also is reconsidering methane pollution standards for certain types of drilling equipment. The EPA made this announcement on the same day that White House officials told the media that President Trump would likely withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement.

The EPA’s action will allow companies to emit thousands of tons of toxic, heat-trapping, and smog-forming pollutants into the air, forcing communities across the country to breathe dirtier air and suffer the health consequences. The parts of the country with the most oil and gas drilling—such as Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Louisiana, Texas, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s home state of Oklahoma—are likely to feel the greatest impacts.

The only clear winners that Trump and Pruitt seem to be hoping to please are Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, and the many other oil and gas companies that will now be able to continue to pollute without limit at the expense of public health.

The EPA’s methane standards protect public health

The oil and gas sector is the largest industrial source of methane—a supercharged global warming pollutant—in the United States. Methane can escape at numerous points in the oil and natural gas system—from leaky valves and pipes, for example, or from intentional equipment venting. Methane emissions from oil and gas operations are often mixed with other harmful pollutants, including cancer-causing chemicals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a key precursor of smog.

Using its authority under the Clean Air Act, the EPA set performance standards for the oil and gas sector in 2016. This EPA rule, which does not apply to existing sources already in operation, establishes emissions limits for methane pollution from new equipment and facilities and requires oil and gas companies to find and repair fugitive methane leaks on a firm schedule. It also requires producers to capture methane gas at new oil wells that otherwise would escape into the atmosphere.

Upon releasing the rule, the EPA estimated that these standards would avert 510,000 short tons of methane pollution in 2025, which is equivalent to burning 12.3 billion tons of coal. The standards also would reduce 210,000 tons of smog-forming VOCs and 3,900 tons of air toxins. The leak detection and repair requirements in the rule deliver two-thirds of the methane emissions reductions and more than 90 percent of toxic air pollution reductions.

The Trump EPA caters to oil and gas companies

The oil and gas industry immediately went to court to oppose the methane standards. In August 2016, 24 trade associations representing the oil and gas industry sued the EPA to block the rule. As attorney general of Oklahoma, Administrator Pruitt also sided with the oil and gas companies—not an uncommon occurrence during his tenure as attorney general—and joined with other states to sue the EPA.

Since becoming head of the EPA, Administrator Pruitt has continued to heed the wishes of the oil and gas industry. Under the Obama administration, the EPA requested data from oil and gas companies about best practices for reducing methane pollution from their existing operations. But on March 2, 2017, the Trump EPA announced that it was withdrawing the agency’s information call—the day after it received a request from oil- and gas-producing states.

On April 18, 2017, the EPA responded to oil and gas industry petitions and informed the parties that it planned to reconsider portions of the EPA methane pollution standards related to fugitive emissions monitoring. More than 60 conservation, public health, labor, faith, and other organizations sent a letter to the EPA opposing this decision. On May 31, 2017, the EPA formally announced that it planned to reconsider the leak monitoring and repair requirements—the cornerstone of the methane rule—and told industry that it did not have to comply. Between the April 18 letter and the May 31 announcement, the EPA also added two new components of the methane rule to the agency’s agenda for reconsideration: engineer certification requirements and pollution standards for pneumatic pumps, which are among the most polluting types of equipment used in drilling operations.

Because of the EPA’s action, oil and gas companies will be under no federal obligation to monitor newly drilled wells and equipment for leaks of harmful air pollution.

Oil and gas companies are the big winners

In 2015, the petroleum and natural gas systems sector reported releasing 70 million metric tons—measured in carbon dioxide equivalent—of methane, the equivalent of burning 75 billion pounds of coal. The oil and gas companies responsible for these emissions are the ones that have the most to gain from the EPA’s decision to halt the leak detection and repair requirements.

The Center for American Progress analyzed methane pollution data collected from companies as part of the EPA Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. Table 1 shows the 50 oil and gas companies reporting the most methane pollution from onshore oil and gas production in 2015.

Communities in certain regions will be the biggest losers

Certain regions of the country are home to more oil and gas drilling than others and therefore have the most to lose from the EPA’s rescission of the leak detection and repair requirements. Figure 1 shows the 10 regions—which the EPA categorizes by hydrocarbon basin—where oil and gas companies reported the most methane pollution in 2015. Communities in these regions will carry additional health risks from exposure to higher levels of smog-forming VOCs and toxic air pollutants, such as benzene.

Conclusion

Administrator Pruitt’s short tenure at the EPA already has been a boon to the oil and gas industry. This latest action—telling oil and gas companies that they need not bother plugging leaks of harmful air pollution—demonstrates that the Trump EPA sees little role for the federal government in overseeing oil and gas industry practices and protecting public health and the environment.

Alison Cassady is the director of domestic energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress.