Major oil and gas companies are opposing the Trump administration’s reversal of Obama-era EPA methane emission regulations, while their corporate lobbying and trade associations argue in favor of the rollbacks in court.

In 2014 Colorado led the nation in taking legislative action to limit methane emissions from oil & gas operations. The state rules, the result of a bipartisan compromise between industry and public health and environmental advocates overseen by then-Governor John Hickenlooper, served as a model for subsequent federal regulations implemented by the Obama administration in 2016.

The Trump administration began targeting its predecessor’s environmental regulations for reversal as soon as it took office. Major oil & gas companies such as Exxon and BP publicly asked the EPA to leave the 2016 methane regulations in place.

“Exxon urged the E.P.A. in 2018 to maintain core elements of the Obama administration’s policy,” the New York Times reported. “Gretchen Watkins, the United States chairwoman for Shell, which has urged the Trump administration to regulate methane emissions, said, ‘The negative impacts of methane have been widely acknowledged for years, so it’s frustrating and disappointing to see the administration go in a different direction.'”

In the courtroom, however, in August, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler finalized his plan to eliminate the Obama-era methane protections from the EPA’s New Source Performance Standards. Twenty states, led by California and Colorado, sued the EPA to stop the rollbacks.

Yet despite the public statements in support of keeping the rules from companies like Exxon and Shell, the American Petroleum Institute (API), of which both companies are dues-paying members, filed a motion to intervene on behalf of the EPA, defending the Trump administration rollbacks.

API requested “leave to intervene as a respondent to protect its interests.”

Reached for comment, an ExxonMobil spokesperson says the company “supports direct, cost-effective federal regulation of methane emissions from new and existing sources along the oil and natural gas value chain. During the public comment period for the policy rule, we submitted comments to EPA’s rulemaking docket that stated this position and urged EPA to withdraw its proposed rule. We asked EPA to regulate methane emissions directly in a cost-effective and legally sound manner.”

Asked specifically about the API intervention, spokesperson Julie King says ExxonMobil, “does not comment on internal trade association deliberations.”

Just a week ago, Shell chairwoman Watkins reiterated the company’s public support.

Right now, the Environmental Defense Fund and states like New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Colorado and others are fighting to protect the direct regulation of methane under the Clean Air Act, Watkins wrote in LinkedIn. “Shell supports them, and we support their efforts to allow for continued regulation while the courts resolve the litigation.” [emphasis added]

Like Exxon, Shell is a leading member of API. It says it is “misaligned” with API over methane regulation, yet it continues to pay membership dues and attend API meetings on the issue.

Another fossil fuel giant, ConocoPhillips, notes on its public policy page that “our position on the direct federal regulation of methane is different and we continue to work with API members on this issue. In the past year, we have also led or actively participated in several trade organization position updates and voted against or abstained from supporting specific actions requested by a trade organization. In addition, we have decided not to renew some memberships in 2020 because of misalignment on a number of policy topics, one of which is climate change.”

ConocoPhillips remains a dues-paying member of API.

Adding another twist to the industry hypocrisy surrounding methane, API’s local affiliate, the Colorado Petroleum Council, was among the key players supporting our state regulations, which served as the basis for the federal rules API now wants to eliminate.

Deputy Director Andrew Forkes-Gudmundson of the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans (LOGIC) expressed dismay over the industry’s continued legal opposition to existing methane rules, particularly when contrasted with the public statements of some of its leading companies.

“It’s really frustrating listening to the industry speak out of both sides of their mouth on this,” says Forkes-Gudmundson. “These methane rules are really basic. Leak detection and repair is the lowest-hanging fruit for meeting state and federal climate goals. It’s not cost-prohibitive to the industry. Here in Colorado the oil & gas industry boomed after the state implemented the emissions rules.

“If these major companies are serious about meeting emissions reduction targets, we’re long past time for them to put their money where their mouth is. They need to step up and meet those commitments, but instead, this lawsuit intervention by API is them doing the opposite.”

Two additional industry groups, Denver-based Western Energy Alliance (WEA), and GPA Midstream Association, also filed motions to intervene on behalf of the Trump administration.

All three associations also sued the EPA back in 2016 as soon as the Obama administration first implemented the methane rules. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) expressed its concerns over disparities between oil & gas companies’ public statements and the legal actions of the associations to which they belong in a blog post last year.

“Any oil and gas company that claims to support climate action should not only publicly advocate to keep the existing rule, but also insist that API publicly drop its push to gut federal methane regulations,” stated the UCS blog.

So what does this all mean? First and foremost it depends on the outcome of November’s election. If Joe Biden becomes president, he promises to “not just reverse all of the damage Trump has done, but go further and faster. Day 1 of the Biden Administration is going to be very busy! To immediately make progress on his climate agenda, Biden will take actions including requiring aggressive methane pollution limits for new and existing oil and gas operations.”

Colorado’s state regulations will remain in place regardless of the election’s outcome. However, state-level limits are far less effective than federal regulations that apply to all states. Pollution doesn’t respect state borders, and neighboring states like Texas don’t have their own restrictions on methane emissions. To the south, New Mexico officials started working on their own regulations, following Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s taking office in Jan. 2019. The proposed rules are similar to Colorado’s, but not expected to take effect until early next year.

None of this means Colorado isn’t taking action, however. On Sept. 20 the state released its Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap, which proposes plans for reducing a variety of emissions impacting climate change, including methane. As Colorado Politics Michael Karlik reports, “multiple state agencies will hold a three-hour online listening session on Oct. 20 to receive questions and input.” The public comment period will remain open through Nov. 1.