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After Exxon well leak, US senator pushes for federal methane leak fine authority

One of the Senate's most vocal advocates for climate action intends to introduce legislation that would empower the federal government to fine energy companies for large methane leaks.

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., signaled his intention in letters to Exxon Mobil Corp. and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seeking information about a 2018 natural gas well blowout. A recent scientific analysis concluded the accident released an estimated 60,000 metric tons of methane over 20 days, far more than previously known.

The size of the leak eclipsed the annual methane emissions from oil and gas operations in 12 of the 15 European nations reviewed by scientists, stoking concerns that emissions from U.S. well blowouts and other incidents are being routinely under-reported.

Markey said his review of current law suggests the EPA does not have the ability to levy civil penalties for this type of accident, which occurred at a well in Belmont County, Ohio, operated by Exxon Mobil subsidiary XTO Energy Inc. The legislation Markey intends to introduce would bring the EPA's ability to impose fines for methane leaks in line with its authority to penalize companies for large oil spills, the senator said in a Jan. 7 news release.

"Companies can be fined for offshore spills and certain onshore spills under the Clean Water Act, but there is a regulatory blind spot regarding large methane blowouts from oil and gas drilling," Markey said in the Jan. 3 letter to Exxon Mobil. "This regulatory loophole undercuts any incentive there may be for companies to avoid methane releases or accurately report these leaks when they occur."

The accident was not only a major concern for climate pollution but also for public health, said Markey, who cited reports of throat irritation, dizziness and breathing problems in nearby communities.

Markey asked Exxon Mobil to provide information about its initial leak estimates, its response to the accident, and the release of any hazardous pollutants besides methane. He also sought information about large leaks at other sites and the company's leak monitoring practices.

The senator requested details about the EPA's response to and monitoring of the Belmont County well and any enforcement actions the agency intends to take.