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This month, the Environmental Protection Agency received heavy criticism from Texans.
At a three-day public hearing, about 300 people across the country commented on the agency’s additional proposal to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Many called from Texas, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and other oil and gas producing states that are responsible for methane emissions in the US.
The public comment period ends February 13, and the EPA will release the final rule later this year. The rule is the cornerstone of President Joe Biden’s EPA strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The rule will have the greatest impact on oil and gas producing states such as Texas, which do not have broad methane regulations. Texas agencies tasked with regulating the oil and gas industry have questioned several provisions of the proposed rule.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund, oil and natural gas production is the largest source of industrial methane in the US. Perm MAP projectThe Permian Basin, located between West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, is the largest oil and gas basin in the country with the highest methane emissions. Methane is the main component of natural gas.
“I have seen firsthand how these small marginal wells contribute to methane and greenhouse gas pollution,” said Sheila Serna, director of climate science and policy at the Rio Grande International Research Center in Laredo. “And how TCEQ [the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality]whose mission is to protect human health and the environment, let us down badly.”
Serna was previously a TCEQ Air Emissions Investigator in Webb County, which contains part of the Eagle Ford Shale Formation.
“We need strict rules like this to come from the EPA,” she said in an interview. “Because states that resist regulation of this sector will have to comply.”
Texas to become proving ground for EPA methane regulations
Methane follows carbon dioxide as the second most abundant human-caused greenhouse gas. Because methane is more efficient at keeping heat in the atmosphere than CO.2reducing methane emissions is one of the most effective short-term measures to slow the pace of climate change.
The EPA issued a methane rule in November 2021 and in November 2022 additional rule strengthen and expand the original sentence. Additional rule by 2030 will reduce methane emissions by 87% compared to 2005 levels. It will also reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and toxic air emissions, including benzene, from oil and methane production.
The additional proposal includes provisions to monitor all wells for leaks, prevent leaks from abandoned wells, and establish a “super emitter” program to quickly detect and report large methane leaks. Huge amounts of methane flow from wells and pipelines.
The rule’s success will depend on its application in the country’s largest oil and gas fields. Permian Basin only is 40% US oil supplies and 15% of gas supplies.
“From a political standpoint in Texas, we have not been able to get the two major state agencies to take methane seriously,” said Cyrus Reid, director of conservation at the Lone Star Sierra Club. “TCEQ doesn’t have specific state regulations on methane pollution, so we really need the federal government to step in because our state agencies aren’t going to act.”
The proposed rule would curb blowouts and flaring, which are still common practice in Texas oil and gas fields. Flaring involves flaring methane at the wellhead, either to reduce pressure as a precautionary measure or, more typically, to dispose of unwanted natural gas that comes to the surface as a by-product of oil production.
Methane can also be simply “released” at the wellhead—released directly into the atmosphere.
Flaring methane is preferable to just venting it because flaring the gas turns it into carbon dioxide, which is less heated. But both flaring and release, in addition to impacting climate change, pose a serious threat to the health of nearby residents. Flaring releases various hazardous air pollutants, including volatile organic compounds, and contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone, a pollutant that causes respiratory and heart disease.
In 2021, the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas operators, issued 3351 resolution allowing fossil fuel producers to release and flare natural gas. Under the Texas Administrative Code, flaring must not take place without exceptions provided by Commission Rule 32, which the Railroad Commission almost never denies.
Railroad Commission Communications Director R. J. DeSilva said the agency has taken “extensive steps to reduce flaring in recent years” and said flaring has decreased by more than 70% since June 2019.
Although the number of permits for flaring has decreased since 2019, organizations including earthworks documented that many flares in the Permian Basin are not permitted.
Last year, students at the Roy Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University satellite data analyzed equipped with the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, capable of detecting methane leaks, and compared these results from 2012 to 2020 with total flaring and emissions data reported to regulators by fossil fuel companies. In Texas, methane emissions detected by satellites were nearly double the amounts reported by companies for flared and vented gas.
TCEQ regulates air emissions from drilling sites. TCEQ spokeswoman Victoria Kann said methane control is an added benefit of the agency’s existing regulations on volatile organic compounds that cause cancer and damage the human nervous, respiratory and immune systems. VOCs also contribute to smog, which produces ozone and particulate matter, which can lead to heart, lung, respiratory problems and early death.
Cann said compliance is assessed through routine investigations and in response to complaints.
On the other side of the Permian Basin, New Mexico’s economy is also dependent on the oil and gas sector. But the Democratic-controlled legislature passed new emission rules. Many New Mexico residents have filed comments with the EPA calling for a strong stance on methane emissions.
“New Mexico supports the EPA’s efforts to create a national rule that levels the playing field for all states,” New Mexico Department of the Environment spokesman Matthew Maez said.
In 2021, New Mexico banned the venting and flaring of new and existing wells. In 2022, the state adopted the NMED Air Emissions Oil and Gas Regulation, which also addresses methane emissions. But Maez noted that the agency’s enforcement capacity is limited because the New Mexico Legislature has not funded additional air quality inspectors.
Texas regulators have not been receptive to EPA methane regulation.
“This ongoing anti-oil and gas policy will kill jobs, stifle economic growth and make America more dependent on foreign nations for reliable energy sources,” Railway Commission Chairman Wayne Christan said in a statement. said in November 2021 when the methane rule was first published.
TCEQ provided public comments under the originally proposed rule in January 2022, calling into question the EPA’s authority to implement the rule. Comments TCEQ opposed the inclusion of abandoned wells and many small oil and gas operators in the rule. The agency said the economic impact of the rule was underestimated and the social benefits overestimated.
TCEQ spokesman Cann said the agency is reviewing the additional proposal and will provide additional comments. Railroad Commission’s DeSilva said the agency would also provide additional comments to the Environmental Protection Agency. Both agencies submitted requests to extend the public comment period.
‘Process is imperfect’: Texas supporters call for strong federal rule
Many of those who commented publicly to the EPA had extensive experience working on air quality and oil and gas issues. One of them was independent consultant James Tim Doty, who had worked for 17 years on the TCEQ mobile air monitoring unit.
“The pollution in Texas, in the Permian Basin, is like nothing I have ever seen,” he said.
“We have no idea how much methane emissions are happening,” he said, urging the Environmental Protection Agency to pass the rule. “Process broken.”
Sierra Club’s Reed said the additional rule improved on the original rule proposed by the EPA in 2021. He was pleased to see that the rule includes both new and existing oil and gas wells. Reed said it was important for the EPA to adopt regulations that cover smaller operators and marginal oil wells.
“If we’re trying to reduce and eliminate methane pollution, the biggest problem is actually some of these marginal wells,” he said. “To not subject them to these rules would be a step backwards.”
Cerna of the Rio Grande International Research Center said the methane debate is far from over and oil and gas operators are likely to challenge the provisions of the EPA rule. But she was encouraged by the strong show of support for the rule during the public hearing.
“I submitted my comment on the first day,” she said. “It was great to see communities across the United States coming together.”
Disclosure: The Environmental Defense Fund provides financial support to The Texas Tribune, a non-profit, non-partisan news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial sponsors play no role in Tribune journalism. Find the complete list them here.