Author Archives: Peter Zalzal

Suspension of clean air standards for the oil and gas industry: an urgent health threat for Americans

(This post first appeared on EDF's Energy Exchange)

Today, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt officially suspended vital air pollution safeguards that will reduce harmful methane, smog-forming volatile organic compounds and toxic air pollutants like benzene from new and modified sources in the oil and natural gas sector – a move that puts the health and safety of Americans across the country at risk.

EDF, together with a coalition of environmental groups, filed a legal challenge and an emergency motion as soon as the suspension was published.

Our brief asks the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to immediately block Administrator Pruitt’s dangerous action from taking effect. Read More »

Posted in Clean Air Act, EPA litgation, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Policy| Comments are closed

In Early Action, EPA Administrator Pruitt Moves to Block Communities’ Right to Know about Oil and Gas Pollution

Last Thursday, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt withdrew the agency’s Information Collection Request (“ICR”) for the Oil and Natural Gas Sector, abruptly halting the gathering of information on harmful methane, smog-forming and toxic pollution from these industrial sources.

In announcing the move, Administrator Pruitt hailed the benefits for the oil and gas industry, but notably ignored the interests of everyday Americans right to know about harmful pollution from oil and gas facilities.

Pruitt’s action also stops EPA from obtaining information that can inform future safeguards against this pollution. Even though cost-effective, common-sense best practices and technologies exist to reduce emissions from oil and gas facilities, most existing facilities in this sector are largely exempt from any requirements to control the vast quantities of pollution they emit.

This flawed decision is at odds with the core tenets of the agency Administrator Pruitt is entrusted to lead and inimical to the health and environmental laws he has committed to faithfully execute. Unfortunately, it is also altogether predictable. Indeed this action—which allows oil and gas companies to withhold vital pollution data from thousands of sites across the country— reflects and reinforces concerns raised about Administrator Pruitt’s ability to lead an agency that he has persistently sought to undermine.

1. Pruitt Chooses Secrecy Over Transparency.

EPA has a long bipartisan history of providing data to the public about pollution in their communities. Indeed, during the Reagan Administration, Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, which included provisions for EPA to create a publicly-available inventory of toxic chemicals down to the local level. Similarly, President George W. Bush signed a bill requiring EPA to collect and disseminate greenhouse gas emissions data from industrial sources across the country.

By withdrawing the ICR, Administrator Pruitt aims to shield the oil and gas sector from public scrutiny. Unfortunately, his penchant for secrecy with respect the oil and gas sector is familiar. During his controversial Senate confirmation process, Pruitt sought to withhold thousands of emails related to his ties to major energy interests who have donated to his political causes. While a number of those e-mails have been released, many more remain hidden from public view.

In the face of last week’s action by Administrator Pruitt, EDF has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for all ICR data that has been submitted along with all records related to EPA’s decision to halt data collection.

2. Pruitt Places a Premium on the Views of Industry and Their Allies

In recent years, EPA has undertaken a careful, data-driven process to put in place protections to reduce pollution from the oil and gas sector. Often, EPA undertook such extensive data gathering to address industry concerns. The ICR was the latest data gathering effort, designed to ensure EPA had the full complement of information on existing oil and gas facilities. These existing facilities account for the vast majority of the sector’s pollution in coming years, yet remain largely exempt from any methane pollution control requirements.

To tailor its data request, EPA carried out two rounds of public comments, assessed significant stakeholder feedback, and substantially altered the request in response in order to leverage existing data and use electronic reporting frameworks.

In contrast to this careful and deliberative process, Administrator Pruitt withdrew the ICR with just one paragraph of explanation, just one day after receiving a request to do so from the Texas and Oklahoma Attorneys General and others.

Coincidentally, when Pruitt was Oklahoma Attorney General, he was aligned with the oil and gas industry in legal challenges seeking to undermine EPA’s oil and gas methane standards. It is disappointing, but not surprising, that he did not solicit input or wait to hear from any of the many other stakeholders involved in this process. Pruitt’s decision to withdraw the ICR may likewise raise conflicts of interest and should be closely scrutinized in light of his ethical obligations as administrator of EPA.

The Administrator has taken similar approaches in the past. As Oklahoma AG, for example, Pruitt simply copied and pasted industry requests and sent them to senior government officials under his own official seal.

EPA is legally required to protect the public from harmful pollution from oil and gas facilities. In carrying out that obligation, it is critical that public officials base decisions that affect our health and safety on careful review of the most rigorous scientific information available—and not simply accept, without any deliberation or inquiry, the recommendations of parties that have a vested interest in weakening health protections.

3. Pruitt’s Selective View of States Rights

As reason for withdrawing the ICR, Administrator Pruitt pointed to the request from the Texas Attorney General and the need to, in his words, “strengthen … our partnership with the states.”

But Pruitt’s notion of cooperative federalism bears no resemblance to the collaborative approach that EPA and states have taken to solving air pollution problems over the last four decades. Indeed, the Administrator seems comfortable with states’ rights when those states are seeking to hide emissions information and block clean air safeguards, but opposes states’ rights when they want stronger protections for their citizens.

For instance, large oil and gas producing states like Colorado and California have in place standards to reduce oil and gas sector emissions. Last Thursday, Ohio adopted stronger standards for certain sources. Eleven states – including major energy-producing states like New Mexico and California – have intervened in court to defend the same EPA emission standards for the oil and gas sector that the Texas Attorney General and his allies attacked in their letter. And many states have likewise supported EPA’s information collection request.

The Administrator’s decision ignores these views and undermines stronger state-level partnership. This is the very same disregard for state efforts to reduce pollution that Administrator Pruitt demonstrated when, during his confirmation hearing, he conveyed reservations about California’s longstanding authority to adopt vehicle emissions standards to address the state’s unique air pollution problems. And, over the weekend, additional reports surfaced suggesting that the Administration was planning attacks on California’s authority, which could be initiated as soon as this week.

This concept of states’ rights as a one-way justification to erode clean air protections is both dangerous and inconsistent with the Clean Air Act’s framework.

The underminer

During his confirmation hearing, Administrator Pruitt committed to carrying out EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment using rigorous data.  Unfortunately, with one of his first actions, he chose to undermine both.

This post originally appeared on EDF's Energy Exchange blog.

Posted in Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Health, Policy| Comments are closed

Defending BLM Standards that Reduce Waste, Protect Air Quality

us-doi-blm-logo-300x261EDF, along with a coalition of health and environmental groups, just filed a motion to intervene in defense of vital new standards that will prevent the wasteful loss of natural resources, save money for taxpayers and tribes, and reduce emissions of dangerous and climate-disrupting pollution.

The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) waste prevention standards will reduce venting, flaring, and leakage of natural gas on BLM-managed federal and tribal lands – but they are being challenged in U.S. Federal District Court in Wyoming by oil and gas industry groups and three states.

Federal and tribal lands are an important source of oil and gas production. Together, the amount they produce is the equivalent of five percent of the U.S. oil supply and 11 percent of the U.S. natural gas supply, and generates more than $2 billion annually in royalties.

Unfortunately, oil and gas companies that lease these federal and tribal lands lose substantial amounts of publicly-owned natural gas through unnecessary venting, flaring, or leaking at production sites.

A recent study from ICF International found that in 2013, drilling on federal and tribal lands —mostly in the rural West— leaked, vented, and flared natural gas worth about $330 million. An analysis from the Western Values Project estimates taxpayers could lose almost $800 million over the next decade if wasteful venting and flaring practices continue.

In addition to wasting a public resource, oil and gas companies’ unnecessary venting, flaring, and leakage on federal and tribal lands also poses significant public health and safety risks.

The wasted natural gas is primarily composed of methane – a powerful greenhouse gas, capable of warming the climate at a rate 84 times that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

The leaked, vented, and flared natural gas also emits air pollutants including carcinogens such as benzene, and volatile organic compounds – which contribute to hazardous smog.

BLM’s recently finalized venting and flaring standards deploy common sense, cost-effective, and readily available technologies — already effectively in use in several states across the country — to capture this gas.

The standards yield significant benefits by minimizing the waste of a taxpayer-owned natural resource, and by curbing emissions that contribute to air pollution and climate change, all while helping to create new jobs in methane mitigation. They will save, and put to productive use, up to 56 billion cubic feet of gas a year — enough to supply up to 760,000 households – and will provide millions in additional revenues for taxpayers.

The standards will also cut methane emissions by up to 169,000 tons per year — the equivalent to carbon emissions from as many as 890,000 vehicles.

These benefits will accrue to millions of people across the country, including those living near oil and gas development on federal and tribal lands.

EDF member and New Mexico rancher Don Schreiber has more than 100 oil and gas wells on and near his ranch in the San Juan Basin that will now be covered by the BLM standards. In a declaration supporting EDF’s motion to intervene, he describes the impact of venting, flaring, and leaking from these wells on his family and, in particular, his grandchildren:

Most noticeable is the near-constant smell from leaking wells. …  These odors make breathing uncomfortable and often cause us to leave affected areas as quickly as possible. … We worry about [our grandchildren’s] exposure to air pollutants from oil and gas development on the property, and always are careful to keep them away from the wells and above ground pipeline equipment. Protecting our grandchildren from the negative health effects of oil and gas emissions is a constant concern when they come to visit us. (New Mexico rancher Don Schreiber, Declaration)

With the new standards, he anticipates a reduction in the “harmful air pollution near my home and in the state where my family and I live, work, and recreate.” (Declaration)

BLM’s efforts to reduce natural gas waste have broad and cross-cutting support from elected officials and community members across the West. In a recent bipartisan poll of Western states, 80 percent of respondents supported BLM standards to curtail waste of this valuable resource. And, over the course of several years during which the rule was under development, BLM solicited the feedback of community stakeholders, oil and gas developers, and local, tribal and state governments. The final rule is the result of a collaborative and deliberate process and includes changes that reflect this stakeholder input.

Standing in stark contrast to this careful process, industry associations rushed to file legal challenges seeking to overturn the waste prevention rule within 40 minutes after it was released — hardly enough time to read the rule, let alone meaningfully consider its contents.

And in a subsequent filing seeking to block these protections before they become effective, these industry associations put forward a number of flawed claims, not least of which was their suggestion that BLM acted unlawfully because its rule may “only” produce additional annual royalty revenues of $22.4 million — a sum the filing characterizes as “de minimis.”

While $22 million annually may be an insignificant amount for the oil and gas companies litigating to overturn this rule, it has real meaning for infrastructure projects, schools, and communities across the country that stand to benefit from this funding.

It’s unfortunate that some have engaged in reflexive efforts to roll back protections designed to prevent the waste of our nation’s public resources and, at the same time, protect our air quality and climate.

The good news is that BLM’s commonsense standards are firmly rooted in the agency’s manifest authority to minimize waste and to address the harmful health and environmental consequences of oil and gas development on federal lands.  We at EDF look forward to vigorously defending these standards in court.

Posted in Economics, Energy, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Health, Partners for Change, Policy| Comments are closed

New Standards for Cleaner Freight Trucks – By the Numbers

rp_Pepsi-truck-300x225.jpgThe Clean Truck standards are here!

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) just announced new greenhouse gas emissions and fuel efficiency standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles.

These are the second phase of EPA and DOT’s joint program for heavy-duty trucks.

They will apply to the freight trucks that transport the products we buy every day, as well as to buses and school buses, tractor-trailers, heavy-duty pickup trucks and vans, and garbage trucks for model years 2018 to 2027.

These standards will have widespread benefits. They’ll help ensure that our nation’s fleet of trucks uses dramatically less fuel, will cut climate and other harmful pollution, and will save both truckers and consumers money. EPA and DOT estimate they will yield $230 billion in net societal benefits over the life of the program.

Here’s a bit more on the benefits of the new Clean Truck standards, by the numbers:

Cutting Pollution

  • 1.1 billion tons of carbon pollution: EPA projects the standards will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1.1 billion tons over the lifetime of vehicles sold under the program.
  • 550,000 tons of nitrous oxides and 32,000 tons of particulate matter: EPA projects that the standards will have multi-pollutant benefits and result in significant reductions of nitrous oxides and particulate matter — harmful air pollutants associated with respiratory ailments and premature death.

Saving Fuel

  • 2 billion barrels of oil: EPA estimates that the standards will save two billion barrels of oil over the lifetime of vehicles sold under the program.

Saving Money

  • $170 billion: EPA estimates that over the lifetime of the program, the standards will save vehicle owners fuel costs of about $170 billion.
  • 2 years: The typical buyer of a new long-haul truck in 2027 could recoup the cost of modernizing with advanced low-emitting technologies in less than two years through fuel savings.
  • $250: The program will also benefit con­sumers by reducing the costs for shipping goods. The Consumer Federation of America found that rigorous fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards could save American households $250 annually in the near term and $400 annually by 2035.

Broad Support

  • 300 Companies: More than 300 companies called for strong final standards during the rulemaking process, including PepsiCo and Walmart (two of the largest trucking fleets in the U.S.), mid-size trucking companies RFX Global and Dillon Transport, and large customers of trucking services General Mills, Campbell’s Soup, and IKEA. Innovative manufacturers, equipment manufacturers, and freight shippers have also called for strong standards.

Strong Clean Truck standards are also supported by national security and veterans groups, labor, consumer, and health groups, and clean air advocates (including EDF). 

Beyond the numbers, they are a testament to the fact that when we work together we can secure commonsense standards that protect public health while driving innovation and helping to create more efficient trucks for the future.

(This post was co-written by EDF Legal Fellow Alice Henderson)

Posted in Cars and Pollution, Clean Air Act, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Partners for Change, Policy| Comments are closed

EPA Updates Standards to Reduce Methane Pollution from Landfills

Landfill Gas Extraction — photo by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

(This post was co-written by EDF’s Tomás Carbonell)

This morning the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized long-overdue revisions to national emission standards and emission guidelines for new and existing municipal solid waste landfills.

These standards will reduce harmful air pollution from landfills, which are our nation’s third largest source of climate-destabilizing methane pollution and also discharge other deleterious pollutants.

In 2025, EPA estimates that the final standards and emission guidelines will reduce methane emissions by an estimated 334,000 metric tons and non-methane organic compounds by more than 2,000 metric tons, primarily by expanding the application of landfill gas capture technology.

Today’s announcement updates standards and guidelines for existing sources that have not been substantially changed since they were first issued in 1996. Over the last two decades, technology and practices have evolved to enable better and more efficient control of landfill emissions — both from new and existing sources. For instance, leading landfill operators and industry experts have identified and implemented a number of best practices for achieving further reductions in landfill emissions, including: installing gas collection systems early in the life cycle of the landfill; using proper landfill covers and rigorously monitoring the integrity of those covers; using landfill gas as an energy source to replace fossil fuels; and developing alternatives to landfilling, including recycling and composting of organic waste.

Despite these advances, some have argued that EPA is not authorized to update emission guidelines for existing sources and instead must maintain requirements that are now more than 20 years out of date. EPA’s authority to review and revise emission guidelines for existing landfills, however, is firmly grounded in the text and purpose of the Clean Air Act and consistent with bedrock principles of administrative law.

Section 111 of the Clean Air Act, which authorizes these standards and guidelines for landfills, requires standards for new and existing sources alike to reflect the “best system of emission reduction,” taking into account cost and other factors.

Courts have consistently held that this provision of the Clean Air Act is manifestly forward-looking, enabling EPA to:

look toward what may fairly be projected for the regulated future, rather than the state of the art at present (National Asphalt Pavement Association v. Train, F.2d 775, 785, D.C. Circuit 1976 — quoting Portland Cement Association v. Ruckelshaus, 286 F.2d 375, 391, D.C. Cir. 1973)

If EPA is to fulfill this statutory obligation, it must have the ability to ensure that guidelines for existing sources are updated over time – just as the agency does for new sources — to reflect the latest advances and improvements in systems of emission reduction.

More broadly, EPA’s authority to update guidelines for existing sources flows inexorably from the fabric of the Clean Air Act, which recognizes the importance of EPA assessing new information about air pollution threats, incentivizing development of new technologies, and enabling their swift application.

In amending the Clean Air Act in 1977 Congress explicitly noted the importance of providing for continuous development and updating of standards:

Throughout this bill there is a philosophy of encouragement of technology development. It is an encouragement to induce, to stimulate, and to augment the innovative character of industry in reaching for more effective, less-costly systems to control air pollution. (S. Rep. No. 95-127 at *18, 1977)

Indeed, EPA periodically revisits the nation’s health-based standards for various pollutants in light of new scientific information and has revised standards for sources ranging from cars to power plants as new technologies have enabled more efficient and protective approaches. This process of regular review and improvement is consistent with firmly established principles of administrative law, which have long held that agencies have authority to revisit and update their regulations over time.

As the Supreme Court held in a landmark case:

Regulatory agencies do not establish rules of conduct to last forever; they are supposed … to adapt their rules and practices to the Nation's needs in a volatile, changing economy. They are neither required nor supposed to regulate the present and the future within the inflexible limits of yesterday. (American Trucking Associations, Inc., et al v. Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe RR Co., et al., 387 U.S. 397; 87 S. Ct. 1608, 1967)

Although EPA’s final landfills standards secure important benefits for climate and public health, there remain significant opportunities to achieve cost-effective emission reductions from municipal solid waste landfills. EPA’s decision to revise its landfill standards, however, is firmly consistent with the Clean Air Act’s long history grounded in innovation and cost effective pollution reductions. It can help to ensure these requirements remain vibrant over time and spur development of these and other new technologies to reduce landfill pollution.

Posted in Clean Air Act, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Policy| Read 2 Responses

Oklahoma Court Rejects Yet Another Flawed Challenge to the Proposed Clean Power Plan

rp_scales_of_justice.pngThe Clean Power Plan has now won a second round in court – before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finished writing it.

The federal district court for the Northern District of Oklahoma rejected another premature challenge on Friday to the proposed standards for carbon pollution from existing fossil fuel power plants.

The first – a challenge brought by Murray Energy Corporation and several states, including Oklahoma – was dismissed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit just last month. In that decision, the D.C. Circuit court found petitioners’ attack on the Clean Power Plan was premature — relying on the plain text of the Clean Air Act, bedrock principles of administrative law, and (as the petitioners themselves acknowledged) the unbroken practice in the D.C. Circuit allowing challenges only to final agency actions.

This finality requirement is critically important to the integrity of the administrative process, ensuring the agency has an opportunity to consider and incorporate public input and that a reviewing court evaluates the agency’s final, carefully-determined course of action.

In last month’s decision, the D.C. Circuit noted that petitioners were “champing at the bit” to challenge the Clean Power Plan. True to form, the state of Oklahoma filed another challenge – pressing substantially similar claims to those already rejected by the D.C. Circuit, but this time seeking judicial review in Oklahoma federal district court.

If the challenges in the D.C. Circuit represented an attempted end run around the judicial review provisions of the Clean Air Act, then here the plaintiffs tried a double end run — adding to their flawed premature challenge by seeking judicial review in the wrong court.

The Clean Air Act provides that a challenge to any “standard of performance or requirement under section [111]” — which will include EPA’s Clean Power Plan, when finalized — must be filed in the D.C. Circuit. The Clean Air Act vests the D.C. Circuit with this authority to ensure uniform and consistent review of actions that apply nationally.

The Oklahoma federal district court made short work of the suit.

On Friday, the court firmly rejected the challenges – dismissing them on the basis of the plaintiffs’ brief alone, without even waiting for EPA’s response.

The Oklahoma federal district court decision both reaffirmed the courts’ authority to review only final agency actions, and identified the D.C. Circuit as the proper venue for challenging the Clean Power Plan, when it is finalized.

In the decision, written by Oklahoma federal district court Judge Claire Eagen, the court said:

The D.C. Circuit has already determined that the proposed emission standards are not a final agency action, and that court has denied a petition to review the proposed emission standards before they become a final rule. (Page 9)

The decision also says:

Even if the Court found that it would not be premature to exercise jurisdiction over this case, plaintiffs have failed to show that jurisdictional review provision of the CAA would permit this Court to exercise jurisdiction over the case . . . . The ultimate issue of whether the EPA has the authority to promulgate the disputed emission standards pursuant to § 7411(d) must be decided by the court with exclusive jurisdiction over these matters, and that court is the D.C. Circuit. (Page 9 – Emphasis Added)

Taken together, these decisions should give pause to litigants contemplating procedurally-flawed legal challenges — but unfortunately, Oklahoma is continuing to press these misguided claims in an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. And these are just the latest in a series of legally-unfoundedattacks on these critical standards.

The health and environmental benefits of the Clean Power Plan could be profound. As EPA prepares for the inevitable legal challenges to come, it has a strong track record of defending the Clean Power Plan and other important clean air safeguards against legal attacks. That's good news for the families and communities that are afflicted by carbon pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants — the nation's single largest source of this climate-destabilizing pollution.

Posted in Clean Power Plan, EPA litgation, News, Policy| Comments are closed
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