New Emails Show How Energy Industry Moved Fast to Undo Curbs
The messages, made public in a lawsuit, suggest the E.P.A. rescinded a requirement on methane at the behest of an executive just weeks after President Trump took office.
By Lisa Friedman July 21, 2020 nytimes.com
WASHINGTON — Not long after President Trump’s inauguration, the head of a fossil fuels industry group requested a call with the president’s transition team. The subject: Barack Obama’s requirement that oil and gas companies begin collecting data on their releases of methane.
That outreach, by Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, appeared to quickly yield the desired results.
“Looks like this will be easier than we thought,” David Kreutzer, an economist who was helping to organize the new president’s Environmental Protection Agency, wrote of canceling the methane reporting requirement in an email to another member of the transition team on Feb. 10, 2017.
Three weeks after that email, the E.P.A. officially withdrew the reporting requirement — and effectively blocked the compilation of data that would allow for new regulations to control methane, a powerful climate-warming gas.
The emails are included in hundreds of pages of E.P.A. staff correspondence and interviews recently made public in a lawsuit that 15 states have brought against the agency over the regulation of methane. Led by Massachusetts and New York, the states say the documents prove that fossil fuel industry players, working with allies in the early days of Mr. Trump’s E.P.A., engineered the repeal of the methane reporting requirements with no internal analysis, then created the rationale for the decision after the fact.
That repeal, the states assert, illegally delayed the development of additional regulations to reduce methane emissions that the administration did not want.
If the states succeed, a judge could, as early as this summer, order the federal government to impose restrictions on thousands of oil and gas wells, storage facilities and pipelines across the United States. Just last week, a federal court, restoring an Obama-era regulation, struck down a Bureau of Land Management effort to weaken restrictions on methane gas releases from drilling on public lands.
In that case, Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers ruled that the Trump administration, in its “haste” and “zeal,” failed to properly justify its rollback.
“In the early days they did very little justification,” said Richard Revesz, a professor of environmental law at New York University and director of the Institute for Policy Integrity, the university’s nonpartisan think tank. So far, only about 10 percent of the Trump administration’s deregulatory efforts have held up in court, according to the institute, compared to an average of 70 percent for other administrations, both Republican and Democratic.
“They justify their policies on analytically flimsy or sometimes nonexistent grounds, thinking, I guess, that they will get away with it,” Mr. Revesz said. “But time and again, the courts say no.”
Methane, which leaks from oil and gas wells, accounts for about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity in the United States, according to E.P.A. data. But it is about 30 times more potent over the course of a century than carbon dioxide in altering the Earth’s climate and is responsible for about a quarter of man-made global warming.
Several attorneys general have filed a motion for summary judgment with the United States Circuit Court for the District of Columbia asking it to compel the E.P.A. to set new standards.
“From the start, we’ve known the Trump Administration has been more interested in greasing the skids for the fossil fuel industry to make billions than protecting the health of our communities, and now we’ve got the receipts,” said Maura Healey, the attorney general of Massachusetts.
James Hewitt, an E.P.A. spokesman, declined to comment on the substance of the lawsuit’s allegations, saying in a statement the agency intended to file its response by Aug. 14.
Ms. Sgamma and Mr. Kreutzer said that, because it was clear that the Trump administration would have a different policy on methane from the Obama administration, career staff members at the E.P.A. agreed that continuing with a requirement to collect data on releases of methane no longer made sense.
“It would have been a waste of time to submit data that weren’t going to be used,” Ms. Sgamma said of her email. “I merely called this to their attention.”
Mr. Kreutzer, who rejects the scientific consensus on climate change and is now a senior economist at the Institute for Energy Research, a research organization that supports fossil fuels, said he did not recall “any push back or controversy” over the decision. “It would have been the worst sort of bureaucratic indifference to impose a costly burden to collect information that no longer had a purpose,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s 2015 methane regulation was part of a groundbreaking series of federal climate regulations. With a goal of cutting methane emissions in half by 2025, the rule, which was completed the following year, required companies to install technology to detect and fix methane leaks in all new and heavily modified facilities.
Under the Clean Air Act, when the E.P.A. moves to regulate pollution from new sources, the agency must also develop pollution standards for existing sources. In preparation for developing a second regulation for existing facilities, the agency in late 2016 required companies to report information about their emissions, their equipment and their methane controls. The so-called information collection request became known as the I.C.R.
When Mr. Trump took office, the government became more receptive to the concerns of the oil and gas industry. In addition to eliminating the reporting request, the E.P.A. also moved to weaken the Obama administration’s methane rules for new facilities. A final version of those regulations are expected out this summer.
According to the emails made public in the lawsuit, Ms. Sgamma reached out to Mr. Kreutzer on Feb. 2. “I know you’re under water right now,” she wrote, but she hoped they might find time to talk about the reporting requirement that she said was creating “confusion” for companies.
The two spoke and on Feb. 10. Ms. Sgamma followed up with another email outlining “key rationales” for eliminating the reporting requirement, or to allow companies more time.
“It seems unlikely that the new E.P.A. will approach this ‘existing’ source regulation in the same way,” Ms. Sgamma wrote. If the agency is not likely to regulate current sources of methane, she added, “then it does not make sense for every operator in the country to go through this burdensome information request.”
That day, Mr. Kreutzer called Sarah Dunham, then the acting administrator of the E.P.A.’s air office, and contacted David W. Schnare, a longtime opponent of climate science and another member of the E.P.A. transition team.
In an afternoon email to Ms. Dunham with the subject line “Re: Quashing the I.C.R.,” Mr. Kreutzer asked her to draft a request to withdraw the methane information collection.
On March 2, the E.P.A. administrator, Scott Pruitt, formally announced the immediate withdrawal of the information request.
“Today’s action will reduce burdens on businesses while we take a closer look at the need for additional information from this industry,” he said.
The agency later said the decision brought the E.P.A. into compliance with Mr. Trump’s executive order to roll back his predecessor’s climate change regulations — but that executive order was issued March 28, almost a month after the agency had stopped collecting data.
Meantime, the emails show, the morning of Mr. Pruitt’s announcement, top E.P.A. political staff had not yet prepared a legal justification for the decision.
“The Administrator wants this turned into a Notice for Federal Register publication and he wants it over there today for publication tomorrow,” Mr. Schnare wrote to career staff just before 9 a.m. on March 2, adding, “It can be literally three sentences long.”
Regulations can only be legally revoked after lengthy analyses and public comment periods; information collection requests can simply be canceled. Still, depositions show, senior E.P.A. officials in charge of the program said there was no internal review and that they only became aware of the basis for revoking the request shortly before Mr. Pruitt’s announcement.
In an interview, Mr. Schnare said plans to end the information request and the rest of Mr. Obama’s climate policies long predated Ms. Sgamma’s letter.
“We were already working on this,” he said. “She wasn’t the first person to tell us, ‘Hey, this is a problem.’”
The emails appear to tell a different story. Late in the day of Mr. Pruitt’s announcement, Ms. Sgamma emailed Mr. Kreutzer, “From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”
Mr. Kreutzer responded immediately, “Thank you for bringing it to our attention.”
“With all the commotion of the transition, the very sensible proposal to cancel the I.C.R. fell through the cracks,” he added. “Kudos to you for being alert!”