White House pressured EPA to favor industry over climate

Source: Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, October 23, 2018

White House officials urged EPA to make changes to an Obama-era methane rule that would maximize cost savings for the oil and gas industry while allowing the release of more planet-warming emissions, government documents show.

The exchange came this past spring and summer, as EPA was working to relax a 2016 rule stipulating how frequently oil companies must check for and repair methane leaks.

The White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs repeatedly pressured EPA to relax inspection requirements, according to hundreds of pages of documents posted last week on Regulations.gov and first reported by Bloomberg.

But some EPA officials worried that easing the requirements would allow more methane to enter the atmosphere. Methane is roughly 30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide.

In May, EPA officials presented an interagency working group with a slideshow detailing their initial proposal for relaxing the Obama administration’s New Source Performance Standards for new and modified oil and gas facilities.

The proposal would have saved the industry an estimated $246 million over six years.

In subsequent correspondence, OIRA officials pushed EPA to increase the projected cost savings to $484 million.

The OIRA officials argued that greater cost savings could be achieved through yearly compressor station inspections, rather than quarterly inspections.

Less frequent inspections were on the wish list of several oil and gas industry groups. Indeed, “monitoring frequency” was the first item on the agenda of a May meeting between Trump administration officials and representatives of the American Petroleum Institute, Chevron Corp., Royal Dutch Shell PLC and other oil companies.

EPA initially pushed back on OIRA’s suggestions, noting that they could double the amount of methane entering the atmosphere.

“While Option 3 provides for the highest net benefits, it also provides the highest amount of forgone emission reductions,” EPA said.

By July, EPA had begun implementing some of OIRA’s suggested changes, the documents show.

In September, EPA released its proposed revisions to the Obama-era methane rule, which required industry to monitor wells on an annual basis and low-production ones every other year (Greenwire, Sept. 11).

The revelations come as the Trump administration touts the cost savings from its deregulatory agenda.

The White House on Wednesday unveiled its fall 2018 regulatory plan, which says that federal agencies achieved $23 billion in net regulatory cost savings in fiscal 2018. A senior administration official, in a conference call with reporters, described the past two years as an “amazing turnaround” (Greenwire, Oct. 17).

Amit Narang, regulatory policy advocate with Public Citizen, said the documents show that the White House is bent on helping industry at the expense of public health and the environment.

“These documents show very clearly that OIRA only had maximizing cost savings to the oil and gas industry in mind, and really wasn’t concerned about the massive amount of methane emissions it would lead to,” Narang said. “That will have an effect not only on climate change, but on the health of Americans.”

EPA is now soliciting public comments on the methane proposal through Dec. 17. A final rule is expected next year.

Transparency

The documents underscore the need for transparency regarding communications between agencies and the White House regulatory affairs shop, sources said.

“This exchange demonstrates the importance of transparency in administrative policy development,” Janet McCabe, acting EPA air chief under former President Obama, said in an email.

Not all federal agencies are required to publicize their communications with the White House. EPA is required to do so through a special provision in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act. That’s why the documents about the methane rule were posted online at Regulations.gov, where they were accessible to E&E News and other media outlets.

“All of this is coming out because of this really unique provision in the Clean Air Act,” Narang said. “The provision says that if EPA is doing regulations under the Clean Air Act and OIRA is reviewing those regulations, all of those communications and changes need to be included in the docket.”

James Goodwin, senior policy analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform, echoed those sentiments.

“This shows the importance of whoever included those provisions in the Clean Air Act amendments,” Goodwin said. “And that’s exactly what they had in mind, because agencies weren’t disclosing stuff from OIRA review before that.”

New legislation could affect the transparency of the OIRA review process.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) this summer introduced the “Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act,” S. 3357.

Although the bill is largely focused on ethics in law enforcement, it also contains a small regulatory reform section aimed at increasing “disclosure of intergovernmental rule changes.”

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