The Trump administration formally weakened a major climate change regulation Thursday — effectively freeing oil and gas companies from the need to detect and repair methane leaks — even as new research shows that far more of the potent greenhouse gas is seeping into the atmosphere than previously known.
The rollback of the last major Obama-era climate rule is a gift to many beleaguered oil and gas companies, which have seen profits collapse from the COVID-19 pandemic. But it comes as scientists say that the need to rein in methane leaks at fossil fuel wells nationwide has become far more urgent, and new studies indicate that the scale of methane pollution could be driving the planet toward a climate crisis faster than expected.
Andrew Wheeler, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced at an event in Pittsburgh on Thursday that he had completed the legal process of lifting the methane regulation. He was speaking in a city at the heart of the nation’s natural gas boom, and in a state that will be critical to winning this fall’s presidential election.
“EPA has been working hard to fulfill President Trump’s promise to cut burdensome and ineffective regulations for our domestic energy industry,” he said. “Regulatory burdens put into place by the Obama-Biden administration fell heavily on small and medium-sized energy businesses.”
The EPA estimates that the rule changes will yield economic benefits of roughly $100 million a year through 2030, while leading to the release of about 850,000 tons of planet-warming methane into the atmosphere over the same period.
Wheeler has justified the move by citing EPA data showing that leaks from domestic oil and gas wells have remained steady over the past decade, even as oil and gas production boomed.
However, numerous recent studies show the opposite: that methane emissions from drilling sites in the United States are far more extensive than the EPA’s official numbers. Overall, methane levels are in fact climbing steadily nationwide, according to the research, and have reached record highs globally in part because of leaks from fossil fuel production.
“Over the past few years there has been an explosion of new research on this, and the literature has coalesced — 80% of papers show that methane from oil and gas leaks is two to three times higher than the EPA’s estimates,” said Robert Howarth, an earth systems scientist at Cornell University, who last year published a study estimating that North American gas production was responsible for about a third of the global increase in methane emissions over the past decade.
“It’s crazy to roll back this rule,” said Howarth. “Twenty-five percent of the human-caused warming over the past 20 years is due to methane. Methane is going up. We need it to go down.”
Scientists say that the new data on soaring levels of methane means that, even if the world’s governments were somehow able to meet the targets of the 2015 Paris climate change agreement — in which every nation agreed to lower their carbon dioxide pollution — those achievements could be wiped out by the heat-trapping power of all the previously uncounted methane in the atmosphere.
Already, the effectiveness of the Paris pact is imperiled, since President Donald Trump has withdrawn the United States from it. But environmentalists are hopeful that it could be restored if Joe Biden wins the presidential election this fall and the U.S. rejoins the agreement.
“The Paris Agreement was not taking into account the new increase in concentrations of methane,” said Peter Raymond, an ecologist at Yale who co-authored a study published in July concluding that global levels of methane have surged to record heights.
“Because methane is so powerful, this rise could offset a lot of the goals in the Paris agreement,” he said. That could intensify many of the already baked-in near-term effects of a warming planet, such as extended droughts, deadly heat waves, stronger hurricanes and more devastating coastal flooding.
Methane comes from various sources in addition to energy production, including animal digestive tracts and landfills, and it lingers in the atmosphere for less time than carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, which comes from burning fossil fuels. But methane has 80 times the heat-trapping power in its first 20 years in the atmosphere.
In recent years, the U.S. has cemented its place as one of the world’s biggest producers of oil and natural gas, a result of the fracking boom. However, a shortage of pipelines, combined with low prices for natural gas caused by the abundant supply, has meant there’s less of a financial incentive to prevent leaks at drill sites.
During his administration, President Barack Obama sought to use executive power to fight climate change with a suite of EPA regulations that targeted three major sources of planet-warming pollution: carbon dioxide emissions from cars and from coal-burning power plants, and methane leaks from wells. At the time, the methane rule was seen as slightly less consequential than the other two rules, addressing cars and coal plants, in part because data showed significantly lower levels of methane in the atmosphere than of carbon dioxide.
Trump last year rolled back the rule on coal-plant pollution, and this spring he significantly weakened the rule on auto pollution.
But now, as Trump rounds the final turn of his unraveling of Obama’s climate legacy, scientists say that the importance of reining in methane has become far greater as the data has piled up indicating the scale of the leaks.
According to the EPA’s annual inventory of U.S. greenhouse emissions, oil and gas wells emitted about 7 million tons of the heat-trapping gas annually between 2014 and 2018. The more recent studies, however, show the real number could be up to twice that.
A scientific study published last month found that the U.S. fossil fuel industry in 2017 emitted about 13 million tons of methane, the heat-trapping equivalent of a year’s worth of carbon dioxide pollution from all the nation’s coal-fired power plants. A 2018 study in the journal Science also concluded that, in 2015, the U.S. oil and gas industry was leaking about 13 million tons of methane annually.
“In many oil and gas fields, we’re finding emissions to be considerably higher than what EPA says they are,” said Rob Jackson, an earth scientist at Stanford University who co-authored the July study. Methane emissions, he said, are “not stabilizing. They’re certainly not going down.”
Several scientists said that the key reason for the discrepancy between their studies and the EPA’s numbers was the thoroughness of the methods used to detect methane. To compile its annual inventory of methane emissions, the EPA relies on a mix of self-reported data from companies themselves, and some on-site testing of drilling wells, pipes and other equipment.
The scientists said such testing is not comprehensive. In recent years, academic scientists have started using new technologies and techniques to more completely account for methane leaks from drilling sites and pipelines, such as airplanes and vehicles fitted with atmospheric monitors and infrared cameras, as well as satellites.
“There are blind spots in the EPA’s testing — they were missing all these sources of the leaks,” said Ramón Alvarez, a lead author of the 2018 paper and an atmospheric chemist at the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group.
An EPA spokesman, James Hewitt, contested that assertion. “EPA’s final methane rule is based on the most accurate and comprehensive accounting of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions profile, which is performed by agency scientists based on data from a variety of sources, including the agency’s greenhouse gas inventory, the greenhouse gas reporting program, new studies, and comments received on the proposal. We stand by our numbers and analysis,” he said.
The oil and gas industry itself is divided on the rollback of the methane regulations.
Major companies like Exxon, Shell and BP had urged the Trump administration to keep the controls in place. Those companies have invested millions of dollars to promote natural gas as a cleaner option than coal in the nation’s power plants, because natural gas produces about half as much carbon dioxide when burned. They fear that unrestricted leaks of methane could undermine that marketing message and hurt demand.
But smaller, independent oil companies supported the rule as a measure of relief when many are struggling to stay afloat. Those companies also point out that existing EPA regulations still require them to regulate a separate but related category of gases, volatile organic compounds, and that those curbs have the side benefit of averting some methane emissions.
“This doesn’t shift the regulatory burden — we’re still going to have the same requirements” for any new wells that are drilled in the future, said Lee Fuller, a vice president at the Independent Petroleum Producers of America, which represents smaller oil and gas companies.
But lifting the methane rule does avert a far more stringent future obligation on small oil and gas companies: If the rule had stayed in place, it eventually could have required companies to repair and retrofit thousands of older existing wells — a far costlier undertaking.
It is that requirement that terrifies small oil and gas drillers, said Fuller. “To compel it to apply to existing wells is too expensive. It would drive them out of business.”
That may be true, said some scientists. But they also say that many of those small, older wells could be likely sources of the vast quantities of harmful emissions.
“This rule helps smaller oil and gas companies, the ones operating on the edge of financial viability,” said Jackson, the Stanford scientist. “But it’s also saying that science doesn’t matter. It’s prioritizing very short-term economic gain over longer-term economic health and human health.”