Last week, EPA Administrator Regan announced final standards to cut methane and harmful local air pollution from both new and existing facilities in the oil and gas industry.
Diverse stakeholders ranging from major oil-producing states like New Mexico to tribal air agencies to oil and gas producers and methane mitigation companies have all voiced support for the final standards.
Once fully implemented, EPA’s new protections will deeply cut oil and gas pollution, eliminating 58 million tons of methane, 16 million tons of smog-forming volatile organic compounds and nearly 600,000 tons of air toxics like cancer-causing benzene over the next 15 years alone. Over that time, the standards will result in net climate and ozone-reduction health benefits of nearly $100 billion dollars, even after accounting for industry’s compliance costs.
The standards, and strong state and federal implementation and enforcement of them, are essential for communities that have long borne a disproportionate burden from oil and gas production. Roughly 10 million people in the United States live within a half mile of an active oil or gas well, a range that has been closely linked to adverse health impacts. EPA estimates the standards will prevent 97,000 cases of asthma symptoms, 35,000 lost school days a year and hundreds of premature deaths.
The standards are a major step forward in the fight against climate change —methane drives one third of global heating and oil and gas is the largest industrial source of this climate super pollutant in the U.S.
Here are a few of the key details.
Tackling the largest source of methane pollution — leaks
Monitoring standards to find and fix leaks are a central component of the final rules — leaks and emissions from equipment failures are the largest source of methane pollution from oil and gas operations. The final standards ensure operators regularly inspect all sites and timely repair leaking equipment, deeply reducing methane while providing flexibility to use advanced monitoring approaches.
Operators may choose between a standard monitoring approach with handheld cameras and visual inspections, or an alternative based on advanced technologies like aerial flyovers, drones and continuous monitors. Critically, both approaches require frequent and ongoing inspections at all sites, including low-producing and inactive wells, and are projected to lead to significant cuts in pollution.
Under the standard monitoring approach, operators will have to inspect larger sites and those with failure-prone equipment four times per year using handheld gas-imaging cameras. Smaller sites that are less prone to leaks must be visually inspected four times per year. Wells must be monitored until they are properly closed and plugged, helping to prevent orphan wells.
Operators choosing to use advanced technologies will have to survey their sites between four and 12 times per year, depending on the sensitivity of the technology. Continuous monitors can be used too, with follow up action required when elevated emissions are detected.
All technologies must be reviewed and approved by EPA before they can be deployed in the field — a process that stakeholders should continue to track. Incorporating operator feedback, EPA is also providing flexibility to use a suite of approaches at the greatest frequency associated with those various approaches. The final standards also require operators to scan their entire sites to ensure everything is functioning properly. Stakeholders, including technology providers, have strongly supported the alternative monitoring program.
Eliminating emissions from polluting equipment
EPA finalized a requirement to eliminate emissions from process controllers, the second largest source of emissions in the oil and gas supply chain. EPA requires all new and existing controllers to emit zero methane and VOC emissions (with a narrow exemption for sites in Alaska without electricity). In recent years, operators like EQT, the nation’s largest gas producer, have successfully transitioned to zero-emitting controllers. EPA estimates this standard will reduce 29 million tons of methane from oil and gas operations in the coming years, amounting to 50% of the reductions that are expected from the rule. Operators will have a year to ensure all newly installed controllers comply, and a longer phase-in period to replace existing controllers. EPA has also finalized a zero-emission standard for pumps and has included requirements to cut emissions from other polluting equipment like tanks and compressors.
Strengthened action to eliminate pollution from routine flaring
EPA’s final rule tightens requirements to cut pollution from routine flaring — burning off unwanted gas — at oil wells.
EPA has significantly strengthened its standard for flaring, in line with, although not quite as strong as leading states like New Mexico and Colorado with similar regulatory frameworks. Because flares often malfunction or are unlit, they directly release methane and VOCs into the air communities breathe. In 2017 alone, flaring and venting emissions from oil and gas operations resulted in 710 premature deaths, 73,000 asthma exacerbations among children and $7.4 billion in health damages, with a disproportionate burden falling on disadvantaged communities.
Newly constructed oil wells — where most flaring occurs — will be required to end routine flaring within two years. Flaring will only be permitted under temporary, pre-defined circumstances with tight duration limits, such as in emergencies. Existing sites cannot flare unless they demonstrate through annual engineering certifications that capturing gas using available technologies is not technically feasible, or if they produce 40 tons per year of methane or less, the equivalent of just over one barrel of oil equivalent per day in gas production.
Identifying super emitters
EPA has created and will oversee a program for independent third parties to report large emission events, known as super-emitters. EPA already regularly uses methane monitoring data from third parties, but this streamlined program will make that process more transparent and actionable for operators. EPA will review emission notifications and share them with operators who can investigate and quickly fix the underlying cause. To ensure the program is effective, third parties will need to receive a certification from EPA and emission notifications will have to contain the time, location, emission rate and other information.
All notifications will be posted in real time after EPA review, providing transparency to the public and nearby communities. This provides important transparency and accountability for industry — super-emitters have been shown to have a disproportionate contribution to total emissions from oil and gas sites. These harmful events are often related to abnormal processes — appearing when sites are not properly operated or designed. Using all available data to quickly address them is a commonsense step by EPA.’
What’s next on implementation
The standards for new facilities — those constructed or modified after December 2022 — will begin to take effect 60 days after the final rule is published in the Federal Register. Standards for older, existing facilities will go through a planning process to be implemented, where states and tribes will have two years to submit their own plans to EPA for approval. Continued stakeholder engagement in the implementation process will be essential for ensuring the benefits of EPA’s protections are fully realized.