EPA’s Methane Pollution Air Rule Triggers Need to Review Existing Sources

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a series of commonsense requirements designed to control the health-harming toxic air emissions from new and modified oil and gas sources. These steps will result in the industry utilizing more of their cost-effective technologies to capture leaks, flares, and other releases from wells, pipelines, and other gas infrastructure that contribute to climate change, increased asthma rates, smog, and other serious health concerns.

Whose Idea is This Anyway?

The EPA has the authority to issue these rules under Section 111(b) of the Clean Air Act (CAA). Congress granted the EPA Administrator wide discretion to issue New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for any new stationary source she believes causes air pollution and endangers public health and welfare. However, just going after the new wells is not good enough.

We’ll Always Have Paris

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan calls for reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector 40%-45% below 2012 levels by 2025. The problem could not be more urgent. Next year, world leaders will meet in Paris, France in what may be one of our last opportunities to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is 86x more potent a greenhouse gas polluter than carbon. The rapid spread of natural gas wells and its associated infrastructure not only has led to the endangering public health but also accelerating our planet’s climate crisis. In order to achieve the President’s reduction targets, EPA will have to cover existing methane sources also.

What’s Old is New

Fortunately, Congress thought of that already. Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set emissions standards for existing sources too whenever they issue an NSPS. Under Section 111(d), EPA creates binding requirements that states must address in establishing their own plans toward reducing emissions from those existing sources EPA identified in their new source rule. Usually, EPA creates model standards for states to follow, but states can choose other ways to achieve the necessary reductions. However, EPA still has to approve the state plans.

This 111(d) review is not optional. Now that EPA has largely completed the hard work of controlling methane emissions from new and modified oil and gas wells, it should quickly turn to the more pressing source of this pollution: the leaking wells and pipelines we already have. EPA’s regulations allow states the flexibility they need to consider costs, compliance schedules, and the ease of technology retrofits. The communities already facing plumes of the Volatile Organic Compounds and other poisonous pollutants spewing from these facilities deserve to benefit from the same protections EPA just extended to neighborhoods near new wells.

We applaud EPA’s efforts to protect public health and the climate from the harmful chemicals the oil and gas industry has long dismissed as heat or steam. It is a concrete step forward helping some vulnerable populations where new drilling will occur. The next step is for EPA to help those left behind.