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The American Petroleum Institute’s (API) announcement of support for President Biden’s proposed national methane rules is an illustration of the power of communities and environmental activists to raise the profile of issues like methane pollution from oil and gas and demand bold action to reduce it—just two years ago API was pushing President Trump to undo weaker, Obama era, methane rules. 

This rapid and significant shift in change is also what makes this public statement disingenuous.  

After all, this is an industry with a history of machiavellian press relations and politicking. So, what might really be happening behind the decision for API to suddenly support bolder government action to cut oil and gas methane pollution?

The Devil is in the Details

In March, we will release our oil and gas accountability report which tracks climate commitments from nine major oil and gas companies, compares them to what is actually happening on the ground, and identifies the carbon accounting tricks that the industry relies on to create a façade of progress while they increase emissions.

One of those tricks is capitalizing on a broken emissions reporting system that allows them to report their own emissions through a simple multiplication equation without taking any direct measurements of emissions. The result is emissions levels that even the EPA admits are underestimated. Studies that take direct measurements of methane emissions across the sector estimate that the real number is probably 2 times higher

Right now, this flawed data is helping the industry. In fact, it is one of the few indicators that the industry can point to show progress which they need to prove credibility with decision makers and shareholders and to maintain their social license to operate.

It’s probably not a coincidence then, that in the same breath as their support for the EPA methane rules API also announced opposition for proposed legislation that would, among other things, require an improvement to the EPA reporting system and charge polluters who surpass an industry defined methane threshold. 

Could it be a quid-pro-quo set up?

As they are written right now, the proposed EPA methane rules that API supports are not as comprehensive as they could be. The EPA has the authority to require monthly inspections but the current draft only requires quarterly inspections. The proposed rules also include a loophole of sorts that allows for thousands of wells to avoid regular leak detections all together. Both of these will undoubtedly impact the health of communities living closest to the facilities and leave emissions on the table.

However, the rules are not final and there are signs that EPA plans to continue to strengthen them throughout the process. API wasn’t clear whether they would support rules that applied to all wells or included more frequent inspections.

If API was sincere about emissions cuts they would continue to support the EPA to use their full authority to regulate their members and support congress to hold the industry accountable to reduce their methane pollution as they have already “promised” to do. 

That kind of support would feel more genuine. This just seems like damage control.