Court of Appeals to EPA: Enforce the Methane Rule

Aug. 1, 2017
The Trump administration is dealt a setback in federal court in its efforts to rollback Obama-era climate change regulation.

The U. S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has ruled that EPA must enforce an Obama administration rules that target methane emissions from the oil and gas drilling industry.

In July, the federal court struck down EPA’s attempt to suspend protections against leaks of methane and other airborne emissions from oil and gas operations. The 2-1 ruling by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals resulted from the first lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and others against the EPA over its attempts to delay the methane rules. That ruling gave the government two weeks to appeal the verdict by the three-judge panel, which it did not do. On July 31, nine of the 11 judges of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the EPA rule, which is focuses on the oil and gas drilling industry – specifically fracking operations – and requires companies to find and fix leaks that could contribute to methane and VOC emissions.

The court ruled that the Trump administration overstepped its authority under the Clean Air Act when it tried to delay the rule. The Obama administration standards were released in August 2016, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt indicated the hold the Trump administration placed on the regulations could be indefinite.

On July 5, David Doniger, director of NRDC’s Climate & Clean Air program, commented, “This ruling declares the EPA’s action illegal – and slams the brakes on the Trump administration’s brazen efforts to put the interests of corporate polluters ahead of protecting the public and the environment.”

The standards, which targeted new and modified sources of methane emissions that were not covered in EPA’s 2012 rules – mainly fracking operations – were expected to reduce 510,000 short tons of methane in 2025, the equivalent of reducing 11 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. EPA estimated the final rule will yield climate benefits of $690 million in 2025, which will outweigh estimated costs of $530 million in 2025.

Reductions in VOCs and air toxics also were expected to yield benefits; however, EPA was not able to quantify those benefits. The standards were expected to reduce 210,000 short tons of ozone-forming VOCs in 2025, along with 3,900 tons of air toxics, such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.

To cut methane and VOC emissions, the proposal required:

Finding and repairing leaks;
Capturing natural gas from the completion of hydraulically fractured oil wells;
Limiting emissions from new and modified pneumatic pumps; and
Limiting emissions from several types of equipment used at natural gas transmission compressor stations, including compressors and pneumatic controllers.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is one of 11 state attorneys general suing EPA in the same court of appeals over Pruitt’s proposed two-year delay of the Chemical Accident Safety Rule – claiming it exceeds EPA’s authority under the Clean Water Act – tweeted, “Court Stops EPA’s Attempts to Roll Back Methane. Methane is one of the world’s most potent greenhouse gases. There's no time to waste in controlling emissions. Let’s get started.”

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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