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Oil, gas sector asks EPA to waive some compliance obligations due to coronavirus

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Oil, gas sector asks EPA to waive some compliance obligations due to coronavirus

The oil and gas industry asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to temporarily waive nonessential compliance obligations amid the coronavirus outbreak and to provide guidance to the sector.

The American Petroleum Institute, or API, the trade group representing oil and gas producers, asked EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to grant the industry "temporary relief through enforcement discretion, waivers or revised compliance timeframes," according to a March 23 letter.

On March 18, API and other industry groups assured reporters that operators had "pandemic plans" in place and that the virus would not affect the nation's energy supply chain.

However, the industry may still struggle with recordkeeping, training and other nonsafety requirements as it seeks to avoid the virus's spread and as employees become sick or choose to quarantine themselves, said Frank Macchiarola, API's senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs.

READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly coronavirus newsletter here, and read our latest coverage on the crisis here.

Project permit delays due to closed agency offices and deferred permit renewals are among the numerous challenges presented by the outbreak, the trade group said. Additionally, the virus could complicate companies' ability to conduct fugitive leak detection and repair work and monitoring, and it could delay greenhouse gas reporting. Limited on-site personnel and other disruptions could also result in noncompliance with the New Source Performance Standards.

"The oil and natural gas industry remains committed to prioritizing safe and reliable operations, but is taking into consideration that there may be limited personnel capacity to manage the full scope of the current regulatory requirements," Macchiarola wrote in the letter. "As such, we are requesting assistance from your agency in temporarily waiving non-essential compliance obligations, and we request coordination with your state agency counterparts as necessary."

Many petroleum refineries are parties to state or federal consent agreements or decrees with regulators that include force majeure clauses requiring companies to notify the government of compliance delays within short time frames, API noted in the letter. Failure to provide this notice can terminate enforcement protections. However, such delays may become more common as the outbreak evolves, so government officials may need to work with companies on their settlement agreements as a result, Macchiarola said.

The EPA is reviewing the letter, a spokesperson said in a statement. "The agency understands that the COVID-19 response poses many challenges to our partners and appreciates all they are doing to plan and prepare," the spokesperson said. "EPA maintains close contact with state, tribal and local environmental agencies and the regulated community. As needs arise, EPA will review and respond appropriately."

A member of the Environmental Protection Network, a group formed in 2017 by EPA alumni who oppose the reduction of environmental protections, slammed the industry's request. Cynthia Giles, who served as assistant administrator of the EPA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance in the Obama administration, said it was alarming that the EPA would consider the "wildly overbroad request" by API.

The industry is essentially asking for a nationwide waiver of "virtually all environmental rules," Giles said in a statement.

"Because protection of public health is so essential, EPA has a firm written policy against promising not to enforce the nation's environmental laws, which has applied across administrations for over 35 years," Giles said. "API's request does not even attempt to claim that it falls [within] the narrow exceptions to this long-standing policy."