By Anya Litvak
October 24, 2018
The oil and gas industry is so important to the nation’s top environmental regulator that, upon taking the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency in July, Andrew Wheeler headed to a Range Resources well pad in southwestern Pennsylvania.
It was his first trip outside of Washington, D.C., and on Wednesday, the acting EPA administrator returned to the region to kick off the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s annual Shale Insight conference.
His message to the friendly crowd was clear: “The New EPA” — that was the title of his talk — is “removing regulatory barriers and leveling the playing field for American companies.”
Mr. Wheeler, who replaced Scott Pruitt, said that in the past year and a half, the EPA has initiated 28 “major deregulatory actions” and is developing 49 more.
The menu for oil and gas is generous. It includes exploring ways to allow more uses for produced water, assuring companies that the information they submit about their operations won’t be used to justify new environmental rules, and proposing last month to loosen a 2016 rule aimed at cutting methane emissions from oil and gas facilities.
Methane is the main greenhouse gas emitted by the oil and gas sector and is many times more powerful than carbon dioxide in causing global warming.
The Obama-era methane rule set standards for companies to survey their sites for leaks and fix them. The EPA’s current proposal would allow oil and gas firms to perform less frequent surveys and have more time to fix leaks, among other concessions.
“Our goal is to free you to do what you do best, which is to innovate, create and produce,” Mr. Wheeler said.
Environmental groups, regional and national, have seized on this proposed rollback to denounce Mr. Wheeler’s appearance at an oil and gas conference.
“Administrator Wheeler has a lot of gall to come to Pennsylvania and tell us that regulatory rollbacks are good for us — especially when the majority of Pennsylvania residents actually want more action on climate change,” wrote Joseph Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council in a kind of prebuttal.
“Fortunately, Gov. Wolf has the opportunity to step up and take bold action on slashing methane from natural gas operations,” Mr. Minott concluded.
In June, Pennsylvania adopted new standards for regulating methane leaks at new oil and gas wells. When the EPA announced its proposed methane changes in September, state regulators said their requirements wouldn’t be affected if the federal agency proceeded as promised.
The EPA’s plans for oil and gas emission regulations may go further than the current proposal, however.
On Wednesday, Mr. Wheeler told the conference crowd that the agency is working on a policy that might split emissions from the oil and gas sector into individual parts. If, for example, operations at the well site were considered separately from oil and gas storage and pipelines, the emissions from each part may not be high enough to warrant setting a performance standard under the Clean Air Act.
Mr. Wheeler also touched on some of the other high profile initiatives at the agency, including its lead awareness push, cutting permitting times to six months, reevaluating how the EPA performs cost-benefit analyses for regulations and doing a better job of communicating environmental risks to communities.
“You have a new champion in the White House,” Mr. Wheeler concluded.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Robinson-based industry organization, has invited several members of the Trump administration to its events, including then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016. Last year, the president’s beleaguered former press secretary Sean Spicer delivered the keynote address.