White House Backed Big Oil Over EPA on Finding Methane Leaks



(Bloomberg) -- White House officials pushed the EPA to maximize savings for the oil industry despite the agency’s concern that weakening regulations would allow more methane to escape into the atmosphere, according to newly released documents.

The White House pressure campaign came as the Environmental Protection Agency honed a proposal to relax Obama-era requirements governing how frequently oil companies have to check for and repair leaks of methane, an intense greenhouse gas that warms the atmosphere 84 times more than carbon dioxide.

Every move to dial back required inspections and reduce industry costs triggered a corresponding climb in projected methane emissions, a jump that appeared to trouble some EPA officials, according to internal documents filed in a government docket Tuesday.

The documents show EPA officials also repeatedly resisted White House pressure to dramatically decrease the frequency of required inspections at oil wells and compressor stations in the name of saving money.

In one case, officials with the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs argued that less-frequent inspections would provide “the highest net benefits.”

But the EPA rejected that argument in May, countering that less-frequent inspections also would allow more methane to escape.

The behind-the-scenes debate, revealed in hundreds of pages of correspondence, analysis and drafts from a White House-led review of the plan, offers a rare look at how the Trump administration is pursuing a deregulatory agenda it says is saving the U.S. $1.6 billion annually.

The episode “encapsulates the Trump administration’s environmental deregulation strategy,” said David Hayes, a former deputy Interior secretary who now is the executive director of New York University School of Law’s State Energy and Environmental Impact Center.

First the Trump administration overstates the costs to industry of environmental safeguards, then it ignores the costs to society of dismantling them, Hayes said. The result is “one-sided,” with claims of deregulatory cost savings from not requiring industry to protect human health and the environment -- while ignoring the cost to everybody else.

The entire process was driven by an attempt to maximize corporate profits at the expense of public health and the environment, said Amit Narang, a regulatory policy expert with Public Citizen. “The further OIRA tried to force EPA to maximize net benefits, the more it forced a weakening of the rule, and the more emissions went up.”

OIRA’s edits boosted projected cost savings from $246 million over six years to $484 million -- and resulted in a plan that is projected to more than double the release of methane. Representatives of OIRA did not respond to an email seeking comment on the documents.

The correspondence reveals how President Donald Trump’s zeal to cut regulatory costs has sometimes run into resistance from government officials worried the efforts go too far.

The EPA has been a willing partner in fulfilling Trump’s pledge to roll back environmental regulations he blames for stifling the U.S. economy. But under Trump, the agency has at least twice advocated taking a more moderate course and cautioned against deeper weakening of Obama-era environmental rules. Earlier this year, EPA officials disputed the safety and economic assertions underpinning a Trump administration plan to ease vehicle efficiency and emission standards.

The Trump administration had already decided to relax a 2016 methane rule in response to oil industry complaints the inspections were too frequent and costly. Under the Obama-era mandates, wells had to be inspected twice a year and compressor stations on a quarterly basis.


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