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Scientists, Citizens Call for EPA to Strengthen Proposed Methane Emissions Rules

The emissions rules are expected to become a negotiating point during year-end international climate talks in Paris.

Activists and citizens pose for a photo shortly after a press conference in Dallas, Texas, at one of three national hearings on the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed rules to reduce fugitive methane emissions from new oil and gas infrastructure on September 23, 2015.

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Volkswagen’s diesel cars aren’t the only sources of deceptive, fugitive emissions that need to be reined in, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA said the German carmaker could face up to $18 billion in penalties since the company admitted last week that it deceived U.S. regulators about its diesel cars’ emissions.

But in August, the agency also proposed new rules that would regulate emissions from new oil and gas infrastructure. These include equipment used in fracking processes, which regularly leak fugitive volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and, according to the EPA’s conservative estimates, nearly 8 million metric tons annually of methane emissions that are invisible to the naked eye.

Methane is one of the main components of natural gas and, according to the EPA, has a greenhouse warming effect that is more than 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. It is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted by humans in the United States, with nearly 30 percent of all methane emissions coming from oil and gas production, transmission and distribution.

EPA officials held national hearings in Denver and Dallas on September 23, and will hold another in Pittsburgh September 29, to solicit public comment on the agency’s proposed rules, which are a key part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. The rules would amend the new source-performance standards for the oil and gas industry by limiting emissions for both methane and VOCs for certain drilling equipment and processes.

The rules would be the first of their kind in the nation and are instrumental to the Obama administration’s goal of cutting total U.S. methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent by 2025 from 2012 levels. According to the EPA, the new standards would create a 20 to 30 percent reduction in methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.

But the draft rules would only cover new oil and gas infrastructure, not pre-existing facilities. Also, they would require operators to find and repair emissions leaks themselves, and would also require limited inspections of facilities. In Dallas Tuesday, many concerned scientists and citizens viewed these aspects of the rules as shortcomings, arguing that the proposed rules don’t go far enough to mitigate the impacts of the global climate crisis and to protect health and safety of residents living adjacent to new oil and gas infrastructure.

At the EPA’s hearing in Dallas, 114 citizens, activists, scientists and industry representatives commented on the draft rules. The overwhelming majority of commenters spoke in favor of the proposed regulations, with many calling on EPA officials to strengthen the standards. Only eight opposed the rules, a majority of them representing the industry.

“[Dallas/Fort Worth] is fracked already,” Zac Trahan, program director with Texas Campaign for the Environment, told EPA regulators at the hearing. “There are an estimated 17,000 gas drilling sites throughout the metroplex — in people’s neighborhoods, less than a football field away from bedrooms where children sleep. So for rules to not cover these existing sources that are venting the majority of the methane pollution and other toxic air pollution … seems to risk appearing ludicrous on its face.”

Many Dallas-area residents also took issue with regulators’ plan to require operators to inspect their own oil and gas drilling equipment for leaks, citing their distrust in the industry to adequately monitor itself and their distrust in state regulatory agencies to adequately monitor the industry.

Many others testified about the harmful effects of the Texas Legislature’s early May passage of House Bill 40, a law preempting more than 300 cities’ regulatory authority over oil and gas operations within their boundaries.

Some area residents pointed out the hypocrisy of conservative lawmakers in Austin who rail against so-called “big government” at the federal level while simultaneously attempting to strip small municipal governments of their power, and the irony that the EPA’s proposed rules would preempt the state’s regulatory agencies.

“[The] EPA is our only source that we can turn to for protection from the industry,” FracDallas director Marc McCord told the EPA. “We have a regulatory agency regulating the industry [of] which it is a part itself,” he added, referring to the Texas Railroad Commission, whose elected commissioners accept campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry and represent numerous conflicts of interest.

Members of Livable Arlington, a gas drilling education and activist group, pose with a banner just prior to a press conference at an EPA hearing in Dallas, Texas, on September 23, 2015. The event is one of three national hearings on the agency’s proposed rules to reduce fugitive methane emissions from new oil and gas infrastructure.

The EPA published the rules in the Federal Register in mid-September and is accepting public comments on the proposals until November 17. The agency will review the comments before drafting the final emissions standards in 2016, an EPA spokesperson told Truthout.

The proposed rules require operators to use newer imaging systems that can identify what are normally invisible fugitive methane emissions leaking from oil and gas infrastructure, as well as requiring operators to reduce emissions during transmission of natural gas.

Krystal Henagan, who is a field organizer for Moms Clean Air Force in Texas, testified that her 6-year-old son, who developed asthma shortly after her family moved to San Antonio, has had to bear the human cost of such fugitive emissions blowing over that city, primarily from the Eagle Ford shale region in South Texas. She explained to regulators that her son was prescribed seven different medications at their maximum dosages but not even this level of medication could control his symptoms.

“As a parent it was very, very hard for me to see him in almost a subconscious state, being so medicated,” Henagan said. “There were some nights where his asthma would get so bad at our house in San Antonio that we would relocate just at the drop of a dime to stay in a hotel just so that he could get some relief…. We’re having to react to something that can and should be controlled from the Eagle Ford shale, but yet, it’s not.”

Krystal Henagan testifies about how her asthmatic 6-year-old son has been impacted by emissions at a hearing in Dallas, Texas, on the EPA’s proposed rules to reduce fugitive methane emissions from new oil and gas infrastructure on September 23, 2015.

Oil and gas industry representatives made up a majority of the commenters who opposed the draft rules, touting the shale gas boom and telling EPA regulators the rules would “threaten innovation” in the energy sector.

“The EPA rules are proposing a largely Washington-designed solution that is searching for a problem,” Ed Ireland, the executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, a gas industry public relations group, told regulators. He downplayed the extent of methane leaks from oil and gas infrastructure and such emissions’ overall role as a greenhouse gas.

Many independent researchers and scientists have found the EPA has grossly underestimated its own data, which says the industry is emitting close to 8 million metric tons of methane annually.

One study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found that gas drilling sites throughout the United States emit approximately 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas a year — about eight times the EPA’s estimates. When added to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the previously unaccounted for methane emissions increase the overall emissions from U.S. gas drilling infrastructure by nearly 25 percent.

“What we can conclude from the scientific side is that [methane] emissions are substantial and are typically underestimated. [Emissions] are in areas where they are close to [oil and gas] exploration, are contributing to a halt, and at some point, a possible reversal of air quality progress in that area,” said Gunnar Schade, an associate professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University, during a press conference. Schade is currently overseeing air quality research in the Eagle Ford shale region of South Texas.

Schade’s research on air quality measurements in the Eagle Ford shale region found that the EPA’s inventories not only underestimate methane but also other forms of emissions, including volatile organic compounds. “Through [a] combination of methane with its co-emitted compounds, you can relatively straightforwardly conclude that methane emissions are not dropping,” he said. Industry representatives, however, claimed during the hearing that methane emissions at gas well sites have been steadily decreasing.

Additionally, a new study published recently in the journal Nature Climate Change found that as 1,700 gigatons of carbon stored as Arctic permafrost begins to thaw and release greenhouse gases, including methane, it could create a positive feedback loop, amplifying and reinforcing the effects of climate disruption, and result in $43 trillion in economic impacts by the end of the 22nd century.

Senate Democrats are aggressively supporting President Obama’s climate plan, including the proposed methane emissions rules and the president’s Clean Power Plan, which cuts emissions from coal-fired power plants, in a bid to win control of the Senate in 2016. Senate Democrats introduced a bill on September 22 that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2 percent every year until 2025, a target larger than what the Obama administration has set in its own plan.

The EPA’s hearings on the draft rules, Senate Democrats’ introduction of the emissions measure and Pope Francis’s comments endorsing President Obama’s climate policies during his first visit to the White House, may provide a boon to efforts to push forward on climate change policy ahead of a U.N. General Assembly meeting this fall in Paris, France, which could result in the first binding agreement among countries to collectively address the global climate crisis.

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