EPA Focuses on Methane Leaks as Climate Change Takes Center Stage

In the September 2015 edition of the US EPA’s Compliance Alert, EPA reported that it and state investigations had identified Clean Air Act compliance concerns regarding significant emissions from storage vessels, such as tanks or containers, at onshore oil and natural gas production facilities. This EPA alert is consistent with the administration’s attention on climate change and coincides with the papal visit, all of which set the stage for international attention on climate change in December at COP 21 in Paris.   

The compliance concerns involve an evaluation of whether vapor control systems have been properly designed, sized and operated to control emissions consistent with the regulatory requirements. Storage vessels are regulated because they contain: 1) large quantities of volatile organic compound (VOC s) that contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone- (2) hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) such as benzene, a known carcinogen- and (3) methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

This compliance alert comes while the oil and natural gas production industry is evaluating EPA’s proposed changes to the regulatory program for air emissions from the oil and gas industry (80 FR 56593 September 18, 2015) in an effort to further reduce methane emissions consistent with President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. During his state of the union address on January 20, 2015, President Obama proclaimed “No challenge poses a greater threat to the future generations than climate change.”

Pope Francis’ historic visit to the U.S. last month provided an opportunity to pontificate his view that the climate change is a global problem disproportionately impacting the poor. He echoed President Obama in proclaiming that climate change “represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis: On Care for Our Common Home.

World attention will focus on climate change in December in Paris when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change holds its 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) with the view that COP21 “will be a crucial conference, as it needs to achieve a new international agreement on the climate, applicable to all countries, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.” http://www.cop21.gouv.fr/en.

As the oil and natural gas industry evaluates the regulatory changes proposed by EPA (comments are due on or before November 17, 2015), representatives of nations across the planet will be preparing to discuss views on an international climate agreement. It will be interesting to see if the parties can agree upon anything but given the fact that the Pope and the President of the leading world superpower agree that climate change poses one of the greatest threats to our planet, it is possible that COP21 will produce an agreement far more reaching than the Kyoto Protocol of COP3 in 1997.

Stephen Smith focuses his practice on environmental and energy-related matters including regulatory counseling and litigation, administrative law, governmental affairs and lobbying. He represents clients before federal and state courts and administrative agencies. He provides client counseling and advice on compliance, permitting and agency communications as well as business transactions.
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