EPA Proposes Eliminating Methane Capture Regulations

This week the EPA proposed new rules that would reverse regulations adopted by the Obama administration requiring the natural gas industry to prevent fugitive methane gas releases. The existing rules were adopted during the previous administration as a measure to slow the emission of greenhouse gases causing climate change.

Under the proposal released this week the EPA would no longer specifically regulate the transmission and storage of the potent greenhouse gas… but treat it like a routine volatile organic compound. 

The rules proposed this week would eliminate the current requirements that require the industry to prevent methane releases at transmission and storage of methane at compressor stations, pneumatic controllers, and underground storage vessels (basically- the transmission and storage segment of the industry).  The proposed regulations would also eliminate methane emission limits from the transmission and storage segment of the industry. 

Methane (CH4) is a very powerful greenhouse gas. It absorbs much more energy than carbon dioxide (CO2) and is 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas.  Methane has a half-life in the atmosphere of about 10 years (much less than CO2) but has a powerful impact during that time.

The U.S. oil and gas industry emits 13 million metric tons of methane from its operations each year (emissions of methane are about 2.3% of the production).  Most of these “fugitive” emissions came from leaks and equipment malfunctions in the transmission and storage of the gas- the very sector that the proposed rules deregulate. 

The climate impact of these leaks is roughly the same as the climate impact of carbon dioxide emissions from all U.S. coal-fired power plants.  [R.A. Alvarez el al., "Assessment of methane from US oil and gas supply chain”, Science (2018).]

In their comments this week - EPA officials stated that the industry has a powerful incentive to stop fugitive emissions of methane without regulation because they lose product via leaks. That argument only holds when the cost of fixing the leak is less expensive than the short-term cost of lost product.

Here’s a link to EPA’s proposed rules.  Public comment isn’t open because it’s not published in the Federal Register yet.  Once it’s published, there will be a 60-day comment period.  I’ll keep following this and put the link to the comment site in a future public health policy update.  The comments page - when available - will be at www.regulations.gov.

Editorial Note: In addition to the public health impacts from climate change caused by the obvious things like worse storms, water shortages, decreased agricultural output, impacts to assets from sea level rise (oceans are already 20cm higher then they were in WWII), and the geopolitical implications that these disruptions will cause from increased  conflicts, refugee crises and widespread social dislocation would almost certainly increase - climate change also causes a diversion of resources toward adaptation, diverting public and private resources from more efficient uses of capital.

This results in long-term decreased GDP growth and investment and capital losses. For example, the expected value of a future with 6°C of warming represents present value losses worth US$43trn—30% of the entire stock of manageable assets (the current market capitalization of all the world’s stock markets is around US$70trn).

The reason I mention this - is that as public health officials - we often focus on those direct public health impacts that are resulting and will continue to result from climate change. Convincing decision makers that aren't partucularly interested in public health that the the climate crisis is serious and requires immediate aggressive interventions requires a variety of arguments. Here is an interesting, if dense, analyis recently published by The Economist.