Sticks As Necessary As Carrots to Curb Methane Pollution from Oil and Gas Industry

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently undertaken vital efforts to hold oil and gas companies accountable for their methane pollution. In December 2023, the agency finalized  a long-awaited policy that includes the first-ever limits on emissions from existing oil and gas operations while also strengthening standards for new equipment - a major win for our climate and public health.

Since the announcement of EPA’s plan to reduce methane emissions, supporters have emphasized that the standard will only be as good as its implementation and enforcement. Despite the availability of cost-effective, proven technological upgrades that make complying with the rule straightforward, we know many oil and gas operators will not clean up on their own without proper oversight. 

Now, the EPA is asking for input as it works to round out methane protections with additional initiatives that prevent and stop leaks mandated by Congress through the new Methane Emissions Reduction Program (MERP), created by the Inflation Reduction Act. The MERP contains a component called the waste emissions charge, a commonsense fee that will hold the nation’s largest oil and gas polluters accountable for excessive climate pollution. In short, if oil and gas polluters exceed the rules, there will be a financial penalty. In addition, the charge provisions take effect immediately, so will incentivize oil and gas operators to reduce their emissions even before the methane rule is fully implemented, a process that takes several years.

I recently joined over 30 Sierra Club staff, members, and supporters who volunteered to testify at a hearing on the EPA’s proposal on the waste emissions charge. Supporters of a strong methane waste charge vastly outnumbered any detractors, and they spoke powerfully about the vast array of reasons – from global to personal – why this step is critical in achieving necessary reductions of methane emissions.  

In my testimony I called attention to the fact that in December, the EPA also announced 14 states are set to receive $350 million to implement state programs to reduce methane emissions, which included my home state of Ohio. This commitment and support from the EPA and the Biden administration is incredibly important in Ohio where the state government continues to not take climate change seriously. 

As EPA works towards finalization of the waste emissions charge, it is my hope the agency will do so expeditiously while also ensuring there are no loopholes that would allow big polluters to avoid the charge and avoid accountability. Additionally, revenue from this charge should be used to mitigate the health effects of oil and gas pollution in low-income and disadvantaged communities, and for increased monitoring and deployment of technology to better track the sources and spread of these emissions.

Here’s what others who testified had to say: 

  • Phyllis Blumberg is from Appalachian Pennsylvania where residents are disproportionately impacted by oil and gas pollution due to many large-scale fracking operators in the region. Ms. Blumberg urged “EPA to quickly finalize and implement the Methane Emissions Reduction Program’s waste emissions charge” because “methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to 25% of current climate change and it is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide.” 

    She explained that oil and gas pollution “causes many health problems, especially asthma and other respiratory problems in children, cancers of all ages and premature deaths. Over 10.1 million people in the United States, including 645,400 children under the age of 5, reside within a half-mile of active oil and gas production operations. These fence line communities face health threats every day because they are forced to breathe air polluted with methane and the toxic chemicals emitted alongside it.”

  • Glenn Wikle, an engineer and data scientist from Santa Fe explained that in his “home state of New Mexico, a massive increase in oil and gas activity has recently caused a spike in related air pollution, endangering the health of children and residents in front line communities which are often communities of poverty and color. This has led to EPA ozone nonattainment warnings in counties which used to have clean air.”

    Mr. Wilke continued, “Fixing leaks of a valuable commodity is common sense.  Both the producers and local residents will be better off.”  

  • Elizabeth Scrafford, a Deputy Regional Field Director at the Sierra Club, works with folks in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Michigan. Ms. Scrafford currently lives in Chicago, but grew up in North Idaho where her family worked in the mines in Smelterville for generations. She said, “what I have learned coming from a community like this is that we have a moral obligation to put the concerns of communities and future generations over the short-term financial interests of corporations. The EPA has a role to play in ensuring that kids living in towns with industry experience the least amount of harm possible. This rule-making process is a step in the right direction." 
  • Jim Turner explained in his testimony that people across the country are making personal choices to benefit the climate, environment, public health - and multi-million dollar companies should be expected to do the same. 

Turner said, “Climate change is leading to unpredictable, catastrophic weather events, with severe health impacts felt around the world.  And if humanity fails to slow the rise of temperatures, even the ordinary processes of our ecosystems and human civilization will be badly disrupted.  Increasing temperatures are having adverse effects on crop yields, exacerbating food insecurity, with more political instability worldwide. Methane is the second biggest contributor to global warming, and global methane pollution is surging. Reducing methane pollution from the oil and gas industry is the fastest, most cost-effective way to slow the rate of climate change.”

Those who testified made it clear EPA is doing the right thing with the agency's finalization of the new methane rule and the implementation of the MERP and its waste charge provision: operators that reduce leaks to avoid the charge will produce less waste, strengthen our energy security, and create jobs. As we confront the dual public health and environment threat that is the climate crisis, reducing methane pollution is the fastest, most cost-effective way to immediately slow our current rate of global warming, and oil and gas companies are the largest industrial source of methane.

There is still time to urge EPA to finalize a strong waste emissions charge for methane pollution. Leave a comment here

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