EPA’s SAB poised to issue draft report supporting EPA methane rules for oil and gas
At a January 20, 2023, meeting of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB), a SAB workgroup presented on New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for oil and gas facilities broadly supported the EPA’s proposed rule that would reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas facilities in the U.S.
NSPS and the SAB
- Under the Clean Air Act (CAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must enact emissions standards for new and modified stationary sources of pollution (such as power plants or manufacturing facilities). These New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) apply to newly built sources or sources that receive modifications that increase the emissions rate of the source. Unlike certain technology-based standards, NSPS generally require that the facility use any technology to get below a certain specified emission rate, giving the facility some flexibility in meeting the goals. NSPS are required to be updated at least once every eight years.
- On August 13, 2020, the EPA published two rules that reduced the regulatory burden of oil and gas-related NSPS. The first rule focused on policy amendments, removing the transmission and storage segments from the 2012 and 2016 NSPS, rescinding volatile organic compound (VOC) and methane segments for the transmission and storage segment, and rescinding methane emission standards for production and processing segments. The second rule included technical amendments to the 2016 NSPS, such as changes to leak monitoring and repair regulations as well as recordkeeping and reporting requirements.
- On January 20, 2021, President Biden issued Executive Order 13990, which required, among other changes, for the EPA to reduce methane and VOC emissions in the oil and natural gas sectors. The Executive Order also specifies the EPA to review the 2020 rules. On June 30, 2021, President Biden signed a joint Congressional Resolution under the Congressional Review Act that disapproved the 2020 rules.
- On November 15, 2021, the EPA proposed a new rule to reduce methane and other pollutant emissions from the oil and gas industry. The wide-ranging rule would require reduction of methane emissions from a wide range of sources across the country, expand and strengthen current emissions requirements, and increase the use of methane detection technologies to detect more fugitive emissions. The EPA followed this up with a supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking on December 6, 2022 that improved standards from the previous month’s rule. The EPA expects to publish a final rule in August 2023, but the actual publication dates are often delayed weeks or months after the planned publication date for a regulation in the Unified Agenda.
- The EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) has been in existence since 1978 in its current form. The SAB’s primary task is to provide the EPA Administrator with scientific advice, mostly focused on reviewing the underlying science the EPA uses for its regulations. In addition, the SAB reviews EPA research plans and programs, provides requested scientific advice to the EPA Administrator, and advises the Agency on broad scientific matters. On February 28, 2022, the EPA Offices of Policy and Research and Development sent a memorandum to the Agency announcing a modified engagement process for engaging the SAB for review.
SAB procedure for review
- The SAB met on May 31 and June 2, 2022 and elected to review the science and technical basis of the proposed rule. In August 2022, the SAB’s Science Supporting Decisions workgroup received additional supplementary material on the rule and the SAB assembled a workgroup to review the proposed rule (the Workgroup). The Workgroup formulated several charge questions on topics of interest in the rule. Based on the questions, the Workgroup reviewed the science underlying the proposed rule and broadly supported it at a January 20, 2023 meeting.
- In a short memo before the draft report, (page 8) the SAB commended the EPA on the proposed rule, noting the significance of the actions and the “innovative nature” of several rule provisions. The SAB also recommended revisiting the rule periodically to update requirements and engage with stakeholders as technology improves.
Draft report and presentation
- The report identified six broad topics in the rule for SAB review: (1) the “super-emitter” program and the use of advanced measurement technologies; (2) the scope of the proposed rule; (3) the use of data collected in implementing the rule; (4) capacity building; (5) benefits estimation; and (6) environmental justice.
- The Workgroup supports the designation of a “super-emitter” source category at the specific threshold proposed by the EPA. In addition, the Workgroup supports the EPA’s proposed use of advanced measurement technologies for detecting methane emitters and “super-emitters” from the oil and natural gas sectors. However, the Workgroup cautioned that these measurement technologies should be certified by the EPA and based on partnering with other federal agencies and exterior organizations to develop robust testing regimens. These testing regimens should be periodically updated to ensure that the EPA’s methods keep pace with the rapidly evolving field of methane detection.
- The Workgroup found the scope of the proposed rule acceptable but recommended that the EPA provide guidance to facilities defining the model geographies of varying sizes for remote sensing capabilities to monitor emissions. The Workgroup also supported the sections of the proposed rule that would curb emissions via flaring.
- Regarding capacity building, the Workgroup recommends that the EPA develop coordinated efforts between the Agency and stakeholders to improve methane emission measurement and reduction. This coordination should include communications with community organizations that may need training for emissions detection. For benefits estimation, the Workgroup recommended that the EPA quantify the monetary benefits of health benefits attributable to lower methane emissions as well as future EPA rules for hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) quantifying the health benefits of reduced exposure to the HAP, rather than just quantifying a health benefits baseline.
- As the EPA continues to widen its focus on environmental justice, the Workgroup had several recommendations for the Agency based on environmental justice considerations in the proposed rule. As a general matter, the Workgroup recommended that the EPA utilize the influence of exposures to pollutants and health concerns in surrounding communities in future environmental justice analyses, as well as creating a strategy for systematic and quantitative assessment in the future for emissions strategy.
Implications of future final report
- The SAB’s report, if finalized, will be an important tool for the EPA to consider in finalizing the rule. SAB reports are respected and generally quite thorough. The broad support that the Workgroup showed for the rule indicates that the final SAB report will heavily support the EPA’s planned rule.
- A positive SAB report may also speed the process to get the rule to finalization. If the SAB supports the major sections of the rule, it is possible that the EPA will enact fewer changes between the proposed and final rules. This could lead to a timely publication of the rule, something that has become more and more rare due to budget and staffing issues in the EPA.