EPA’s New Methane Rule Are Cause for Celebration, But Our Fight to End Fossil Fuels Doesn’t Stop Here

This weekend, EPA finalized tough new controls on emissions of methane and other harmful pollutants from the oil and gas industry, a major victory for Sierra Club, for the environmental movement more broadly, and—most importantly—for our families and communities suffering from both unclean air and increasingly devastating climate impacts. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that has over 80 times the climate-disrupting effect of carbon dioxide in the near-term and is responsible for as much as one-third of the warming our planet has experienced to date. This pollutant is emitted from oil and gas sources alongside smog- and soot-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and air toxins like benzene and xylene, known human carcinogens. The oil and gas industry is the largest industrial source of methane in the United States, emitting some 16 million tons per year, and the United States will not be able to meet its international climate commitments without substantially reducing these emissions.

EPA’s new safeguards are based on commonsense, low-cost technologies that are readily available and have been used in the industry for years. Issued under the authority of Section 111 of the Clean Air Act, these standards update and strengthen controls for newly constructed or modified oil and gas equipment instituted in 2016 under the Obama Administration, and also include the first-ever methane regulations for existing equipment. As section 111 is structured, the new source requirements will take effect now, while the existing source requirements will be implemented through state plans that will be developed and rolled out over the next few years, subject to EPA’s supervision and approval. The agency estimates that between 2024 and 2038,  these new protections will reduce methane emissions by 58 million tons through 2038, VOCs by 16 million tons, and air toxins by 590,000 tons.

Today’s announcement represents the culmination of many years of concerted advocacy by Sierra Club and its allies. Over a decade ago, in 2012, our organizations first brought suit against EPA for its failure to issue direct methane regulations from oil and gas sources, to cover sources in the transmission and storage segments of the industry, and to address pollution from existing equipment, which is responsible for the substantial majority of sector-wide emissions. Responding to our advocacy, and following the lead of jurisdictions like California and Colorado that had already taken state-level action, EPA issued a comprehensive, cross-segment set of methane and VOC standards for new oil and gas sources in 2016 and initiated a process for developing existing source controls as well.

When the Trump Administration took office in January 2017, it undertook a systematic—and ultimately unsuccessful—campaign to roll back the progress that had been achieved under President Obama. Now under the leadership of fossil fuel industry champions Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler, EPA canceled further work on existing source standards. It also unilaterally suspended key provisions of the 2016 rule, an action Sierra Club and its partners successfully reversed through federal litigation. A Trump EPA’s rule to rescinding Obama-era methane controls through the normal regulatory process also met with failure, as Congress and President Biden overturned that action through a Congressional Review Act resolution passed and signed in 2021. That litigation not only ratifies the view that EPA must regulate methane under the Clean Air Act from new and existing oil and gas sources, but outright prohibits a similar rollback to the one attempted by the Trump Administration unless Congress passes a new law allowing it.

The Biden EPA has now followed through on Congress’s directive, finalizing an impressive suite of controls for oil and gas sources in the production, gathering and boosting, processing, transmission, and storage segments. In controlling existing sources for the first time, the final rule improves significantly on the 2016 new source standards. For instance, the new standards increase the frequency with which operators will be required to monitor most oil and gas wells for leaking equipment; requires operators to use pneumatic equipment powered by electricity, instrument air, or some other non-emitting process rather than gas; includes a phased-in prohibition on routine flaring of gas at new wells sites; establishes zero-emission requirements for liquids unloading events; creates a third-party monitoring program to identify “super-emitter events;”  and allows owners and operators to make use of advanced emission monitoring technologies like aircraft flyovers or satellites.

These standards reflect real and substantial progress, but the work does not stop here. As important as it is to reduce equipment leaks from the oil and gas industry, our primary goal must be to transition away from fossil fuels altogether, and shift toward renewable energy, building and transportation electrification, decarbonized industries, and sustainable agricultural policies and land use practices. For now, though, it is time not just to celebrate this rule, but to prepare against the attacks that are coming. Oil and gas industry trade groups and their political allies are virtually certain to bring legal challenges against EPA’s standards, and will do everything in their power to see them weakened or eliminated. Sierra Club and our allies will use all of our capacities to defend these important safeguards. We cannot avoid the worst impacts of climate change without them, nor can we adequately protect the health of our families and communities, especially those who live in close proximity to oil and gas operations. That’s why we won’t back down from the fight against oil and gas pollution: the stakes are high, and the time for action is now. Nothing less than our lives and planet depend on it.

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