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EPA Doesn’t Trust Its Own Methane Math, But Can’t Prove Why

Dec. 21, 2018, 9:58 PM

The EPA is proposing to weaken Obama-era oil and gas methane controls that its own analysis shows are cost-effective—a disconnect that opponents say could legally doom the agency’s plans.

The Environmental Protection Agency in September proposed (RIN:2060–AT54) several changes to Obama-era limits on methane, the main component of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas, from new oil and gas operations. The EPA accepted input on its plans through Dec. 17.

The agency’s changes, which track closely with industry requests, include decreasing the frequency with which oil and gas operators must survey their facilities for leaks and lengthening the time that companies have before they must make repairs.

The EPA’s own math, though, shows the controls set in 2016 are cost-effective. So to back up its proposed changes, the agency claims the numbers aren’t what they seem.

The EPA said it “may have overestimated” the emissions reductions current controls would achieve, even in its most recent analysis updated for this proposal, the agency said in its plans. That uncertainty warrants changes to the controls, the EPA added.

But the agency doesn’t say how much it might have overestimated. In fact, the agency doesn’t include any specific numbers to support its claims. And those data gaps could prove fatal to the EPA’s effort to relax the 2016 rule, critics say.

More Harm Than Good?

The methane rule revision isn’t the first instance in which the EPA’s numbers suggest softer controls could increase emissions. But in other cases, such as its plans to replace Obama-era carbon controls for the power sector, the agency argues it is correcting an overreach of authority.

Here, the Trump EPA isn’t arguing overreach. It is choosing to reconsider the methane controls, at the request of the industry.

“When you’re making a discretionary change, it’s even more problematic for the agency to take a net costly action,” Jack Lienke, regulatory policy director at the Institute for Policy Integrity, told Bloomberg Environment. “Why would you voluntarily take an action that your own analysis shows will do more harm than good for society?”

Natural gas operations are the second-largest U.S. source of methane emissions, and the largest industrial source, according to EPA’s April greenhouse gas inventory, which looks at 2016 emissions.

Emissions Numbers

At the crux of the EPA’s claims are questions about whether the agency is correctly quantifying emissions from the oil and gas sector.

Neither industry nor environmental advocates agree with the EPA’s estimates, and in some respects, they share similar critiques of the data discrepancies. For example, both industry and environmental groups take issue with the fact that the EPA’s emissions factor, estimating the leak rate from facilities, is based in data from the mid-1990s.

In addition, industry and environmental groups both question how one study the EPA uses, looking at emissions from 27 low-production gas wells in the Barnett Shale region in Texas, could be representative of emissions from wells across the country.

Over or Under

Environmental advocates say the EPA is far understating releases of methane from industry operations. Recent research led by scientists at the Environmental Defense Fund found emissions levels as much as 60 percent higher than the EPA’s estimates.

“The science is telling us pretty clearly that we have a far larger emissions problem than what our inventories have projected,” Peter Zalzal, a lead attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, told Bloomberg Environment. Studies also are saying the problem is coming from significant emissions events that are unpredictable, he added.

“That says we need a program the requires inspections and surveys comprehensively to reduce emissions,” Zalzal said.

Industry, though, argues its equipment doesn’t leak nearly as often or as much as the EPA says.

The EPA isn’t using enough up-to-date information about emissions from industry operations, particularly low-production oil and gas wells, Lee Fuller, executive vice president for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, told Bloomberg Environment.

“EPA is flying into it and making assumptions,” Fuller said. “That was not really what the intent of Congress was in putting them in charge of making these regulations that can have a dramatic effect on industry and the economy at large.”

No Specifics

The EPA, in its proposal, signals that it is sympathetic to industry’s argument. The agency said it might be overstating how much emissions reductions more frequent monitoring would achieve, calling into question whether the 2016 controls are cost-effective.

But without specifics, the EPA hasn’t articulated a valid basis for changing the rules, Romany Webb, senior fellow and associate research scholar at Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, told Bloomberg Environment.

“The courts are very clear. EPA has to provide strong justification for doing so, and the justification that EPA has provided is not particularly strong,” Webb added. “Its own analysis supports retention of the” Obama-era rule.

The American Petroleum Institute recently presented data to the EPA showing a lower rate of methane leaks from equipment than the agency has used in its analysis, it said in its comments. EPA staff, though, didn’t incorporate the data, raising concerns about whether it encompassed the full range of industry sources covered by the standards.

The oil group’s data, which it collected from leak surveys during normal operations of more than 4,000 sites, finds the vast majority of well sites have few leaking components, Howard Feldman, the group’s senior director of regulatory and scientific affairs, told Bloomberg Environment in an email. About 60 percent of all surveys the group collected didn’t find any leaks, he said.

“We encouraged EPA to recognize the value of the field data measurements that have been shared with the agency,” Feldman added.

Gaps in Analysis

The EPA leaves a lot more out of its analysis, too, critics say.

For example, the EPA didn’t conduct any assessment of how much emissions would differ as sites are inspected less frequently, critics said.

“Even if the agency can’t precisely predict what the emissions effect will be, that doesn’t give it carte blanche to ignore the effects,” Lienke said.

The EPA could face legal scrutiny for that, as courts have ruled before that uncertainty about the magnitude of health effects isn’t a sufficient reason to not address those emissions impacts, he added.

Environmental advocates argue the EPA uses its proposal as a request for data. That calls into question whether the public will be able offer input on any updated data the EPA ultimately may use to justify its changes, they say.

“They’re using this to seek information, asking could people provide information that would support this concern” that it may have overestimated emissions reductions, Zalzal said.

“EPA can collect information if it wants through other mechanisms, but not through a proposed rule like this.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Abby Smith in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Chuck McCutcheon at