Loosening the Reigns
Today the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it will no longer ask fossil fuel companies to reveal their emissions of certain greenhouse gases. The decision bears the mark of new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has fought the agency on behalf of oil and gas companies for years.
Last year, pursuant to the Clean Air Act, the EPA sent letters to more than 15,000 oil and gas companies. The letters requested information about methane and volatile organic compound (VOC) sources to inform future industry standards. This data would've helped the agency to fight climate change, protect air quality, and safeguard human health across the nation.
As if the need for emissions reporting was ever questionable, Pruitt has given companies free reign to pollute with plausible deniability. Several attorneys general from fossil fuel-producing states sent a letter to Pruitt yesterday, urging him to withdraw the EPA's request. Today he made the change.
"It's absurd that one of Scott Pruitt's first acts is to refuse information on a dangerous pollutant," said Melinda Pierce, legislative director at the Sierra Club.
The public process around the draft request was lengthy, and involved two comment periods before a final request was made. Ironically, many from the oil and gas industry supported the need for more transparency in this space.
But now, it appears the EPA will be flying blind when it comes to fighting atmospheric pollution. It's unclear whether the agency has a contingency plan for monitoring the thousands of fossil fuel projects within the United States.
"It's telling oil and gas companies to go ahead and withhold basic information about pollution from the public. It erodes the confidence of the American people that the EPA is prepared to fairly oversee the oil and gas industry," Mark Brownstein, vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund's Climate and Energy Program, told me.
The EPA currently collects emissions stats under its Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, but notes "there is a reporting threshold, and the reporting requirements do not currently cover certain emission sources." This means its data isn't necessarily representative of "the entire universe of emissions," and also doesn't include insights on equipment, facility design, or performance of operations.
I reached out to EPA representatives asking how it will acquire this data in the future, but did not receive an immediate response.
In a statement today, Pruitt said: "By taking this step, EPA is signaling that we take these concerns seriously and are committed to strengthening our partnership with the states. Today's action will reduce burdens on businesses while we take a closer look at the need for additional information from this industry."
Methane, which has a more significant warming effect than other greenhouse gases, is especially concerning to climate scientists. It's been skyrocketing due to an increase in domestic natural gas production. Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration discovered that methane emissions were 60 percent higher than previous estimates.
The EPA has been one of the Trump administration's most vulnerable targets when it comes to reform. So far, the agency has undergone a gag order, political vetting, and threats of major staffing cuts.
"Just because he doesn't want to hear the truth on the dangers of methane from oil and gas operations, doesn't make it any less dangerous to the millions of Americans that are forced to breathe this pollutant in on a daily basis," Pierce added.