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Trump order undercuts Obama-era methane policies for oil, gas sector

President Donald Trump targeted the Obama administration's methane emissions reduction goals and policies as part of his recent sweeping executive order aimed at the energy sector, delighting industry and dismaying environmental advocates.

The order directed the U.S. EPA to reconsider a 2016 rule limiting methane emissions from new and modified oil and gas sources, with an eye to suspending, revising or rescinding any guidelines that stemmed from the regulation or publishing proposed rules that would pull back the methane rule.

The EPA regulation, which was the first to tackle industry methane emissions specifically, was part of the Obama administration's outlined to slash oil and gas sector methane emissions 40% to 45% from 2012 levels by 2025.

On finalizing the new and modified sources regulation, the EPA said the rule would reduce 510,000 tons of methane emissions in 2025, which would have the same impact as curbing 11 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. The agency estimated the standard would cost about $530 million in 2025 and result in $690 million in climate benefits that year.

Trump's executive order also told the U.S. Department of the Interior to consider suspending, revising or rescinding the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's November 2016 rule limiting methane emissions from oil and gas producers on public lands. The BLM said the rule would curb methane lost from taxpayer-owned and tribal lands by 35% from 2014 estimates.

The Environmental Defense Fund railed against Trump's decision to pull back on methane emissions controls, noting that an estimated 10 million tonnes of domestic natural gas are wasted annually through leaks, venting and flaring.

"By taking that step, the administration is undercutting common-sense remedies to a serious problem," Fred Krupp, the EDF's president, said in a March 28 statement. "Along with this waste of resources and taxpayer revenue comes toxic, smog-forming air pollution that threatens the health of hundreds of thousands of Americans living near oil and gas wells, compressors, and other gathering, production, and transportation sites. By asking the agencies to dismantle these basic public health safeguards, the administration is ensuring that the natural gas industry will not be able live up to its reputation for providing a cleaner fuel."

Tim O'Connor, director of the EDF's California oil and gas program, said in a March 28 blog post that he expects to see more policymaking at the state level to counteract the executive order's impacts. O'Connor pointed to the California Air Resources Board's recent decision to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from a broad swath of industry infrastructure.

"It's easy to understand why states are pursuing emission reductions," O'Connor said. "Cutting oil and gas emissions is one of the most-cost effective ways to protect air quality, tackle climate change and reduce energy waste. And it can be done by implementing home-grown solutions that are already being deployed right now — solutions that also result in new business opportunities."

In contrast, the Western Energy Alliance applauded the executive order, contending that producers already have ample incentive to prevent methane waste since natural gas is a product they sell. The group also noted that market forces have helped the nation drive down greenhouse gas emissions overall, largely thanks to economically motivated coal-to-gas switching for power generation.

"American oil and natural gas producers have decreased methane emissions 21% even while delivering a 52% increase in natural gas production," Kathleen Sgamma, the alliance's president, said in a March 28 statement. "We very much appreciate that President Trump recognizes such rules are a broad overreach of federal authority that need to be reined in. We're very pleased that the Trump administration will be reorienting the agencies back to actually following the law and cooperating with states rather than constantly trying to usurp their authority."

The Western Energy Alliance, joined by states including Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota, challenged the BLM rule in court, arguing that air pollutant regulation is outside of the BLM's jurisdiction. The regulation's proponents have countered that the BLM has a responsibility to prevent companies from wasting resources that belong to taxpayers.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted in February to overturn the BLM's methane rule. That resolution would also need U.S. Senate support.

Trump's executive order also rescinded two reports issued by the Obama administration: a 2013 climate action plan that highlighted methane emissions goals and a 2014 strategy to achieve methane emissions cuts. The latter outlined an interagency goal to achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions of up to 90 million tonnes by 2020 and committed the EPA to assessing significant sources of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.