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Published On: Thu, May 26th, 2016

Methane rules are part of EPA long game; Obama administration and the EPA press harder

natural gas burningTND Guest Contributor: Mark Lisheron

Like a “tell” in poker, the Environmental Protection Agency offered clues to its long game in recently issued rules for methane emissions.

As the Obama administration and the EPA press harder in the president’s last year in office, the methane rules show a commitment to fighting hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on every front.

The aggressive push also demonstrates a hostility toward, rather than a belief in, new sources of oil and gas as an alternative to coal, according to Steve Everley, senior adviser for the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

Everley, a managing director for FTI Consulting in Dallas and spokesman for North Texans for Natural Gas, told Watchdog that EPA officials gave industry leaders every indication of cooperation before announcing the new rules May 12.

Buried in the mainstream and environmental media stories about mandates on new wells to reduce methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent 2025 was an order for oil and gas companies to begin providing methane data on all existing wells.

At the same time, the EPA issued new methane performance standards across the entire oil and gas industry. (You can read a detailed summary of the EPA methane rules here.)

“Somewhere along the line before the final draft, methane was politicized,” Everley said. “Some politically oriented people influenced the EPA with research funded by the Environmental Defense Fund that concluded methane is out of control.”

As has often been the case during the Obama administration, there is broad and bitter disagreement as to how out of control the fossil fuel industry is. Activists pressing for the new rules present methane as a scourge, many times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

Industry experts have repeatedly pointed out that methane comprises 3 percent of overall greenhouse gas production, remains in the atmosphere for 12 years then is gone, and its level in the atmosphere has been dropping.

“Methane is such a sideshow,” Everley said, an unavoidable byproduct of oil and gas mining, some of it captured and used, but known mostly to the public by flaring, the burning off of the gas done at well sites.

But that flaring has been an effective image for keeping attention focused on fracking, the preoccupation of activists for the past several years since the boom began, Everley said.

Seen by some environmental moderates as a cleaner, inexpensive energy bridge from coal to renewable energy, new gas sources have become unacceptable to the hard-line environmental left.

“Leaving it in the ground is not a viable energy policy, it’s [BS],” Everley said.

Not surprisingly, the two sides have very different estimates for how much it will cost to comply with the new methane regulations. The EPA somehow conjured a formula by which the capture of methane with an investment in new technology will actually save the industry as much as $150 million by 2025. The agency factored in its own cost estimates for climate change.

The American Petroleum Institute said by 2025, the industry will have paid $1 billion to comply, costs that are always passed along to consumers.

As much as the cost, the new methane rules capture the adversarial climate as the Obama administration wedges the EPA into a regulatory area occupied for decades by state agencies like the Texas Railroad Commission.

At the Global Methane Forum in late March in Washington, D.C., Mark Boling, executive vice president of Southwestern Energy Co. in Houston, acknowledged a lack of cooperation and compromise.

“When any industry has the kind of attacks this industry had, a lot of things they feel are attacking their right to exist,” Boling told a forum audience. “That defensive posture modifies itself into a hesitancy to acknowledge legitimate risk.”

The Natural Gas STAR Program, once a symbol of cooperation, has taken a drubbing over methane regulation. Devon Energy Corp., a founding member of the EPA’s voluntary emissions reduction program, made a pointed departure from the program.

“Devon Energy left,” Everley said, “saying they were tired of the EPA manipulating the data they were providing to the EPA voluntarily.”

When the EPA issued its final methane rules, they again blamed the industry for failing to provide data the EPA used anyway against the industry, Everley said.

The state of Texas is in all likelihood going to follow a well furrowed path with these latest rules: dragging the EPA into court.

“This latest rule,” John Wittman, spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott, told Watchdog and other reporters after the rules were announced, “is just more hot air from the Obama administration in an attempt to line the pockets of their buddies in green energy, while ignoring the interests of hardworking Americans.”

Attorney General Ken Paxton has until mid-July to file a lawsuit. Officials in his office did not respond to a request by Watchdog about what Paxton’s intentions are.

However, Paxton and his predecessor, Abbott, have since the early 2000s sued the EPA two dozen times, recently over new wilderness haze regulations, as Watchdog has reported.

Texas and other states have had some success beating back the overreach of the EPA with the Supreme Court stay of Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

Everley predicts the next target of environmental activists will be regulations to crimp the transport of new sources of oil and gas through pipelines.

Over the past several weeks protesters have set up camp outside the homes of members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency empowered to approve new pipelines.

No matter the target, activists will prefer the battlefield remain at the federal level, Everley said.

“The keep-it-in-the-ground crowd wants the EPA in control. State regulators are made up of scientists and engineers. The feds are political,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter to them. If they win, they have momentum. If they lose, they are aggrieved. In either case, they’ll fight on.”

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Mark Lisheron is the deputy editor. He first served as a national Watchdog reporter and then became the bureau chief for Texas Watchdog. He spent almost 30 years in newspapers, 14 of those years for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a decade with the Austin American-Statesman. Mark can be reached on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Watchdog.org is an online news organization that publishes articles by independent journalists covering state-specific and local government activity. The program began in September 2009, a project of Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to promoting new media journalism.  This article is reprinted with permission.

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