The New Methane Regulations: Adequate or Short-sighted?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency broke precedent Thursday, May 12th when it announced the country’s first ever methane emission standards for the oil and gas industry. The agency proudly called it a further effort on the part of the Obama Administration to fight climate change, and claimed it would cut 2012 levels of methane emissions by up to 45 percent by 2025.

But are these rules adequate? Shortly after the EPA’s announcement, researchers (and environmental organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council) pointed out “too many loopholes” in these new regulations to comprehensively curb the fastest growing source of climate pollution in the U.S., more potent than CO2. A major loophole is that the regulations focus exclusively on new or modified sources and altogether neglect existing ones, which often leak methane and other pollutants. Just 7 months ago, for instance, a gas blowout at Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility began leaking 110,000 pounds of methane per hour into the atmosphere about a mile north of homes in Porter Ranch, California.

CEH is all too wary of not only the environmental, but also the human health, impacts of existing unconventional oil and gas infrastructure. “Unconventional” refers to the fracking part of the UOG “lifecycle,” from well construction to extraction, operations, transportation, and distribution. Recently, CEH collaborated with fellow health experts to release a review about the impact of UOG operations on infant and children’s respiratory health. The paper establishes that merely living near an oil or gas field or fracking site can increase young children’s risk of exposure-induced respiratory health problems.

In developing children, such geographic exposure is duly compounded by the fact that their unique physiology (rapid metabolism, reduced ability to detoxify certain compounds) and behavior (eating, drinking, and breathing more per unit of body weight) make them more likely to be exposed to UOG pollutants than adults. As methane in high concentrations can displace oxygen, such “double exposure” can result in a variety of adverse respiratory health effects including dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, loss of coordination, and loss of consciousness.

But methane isn’t the only UOG pollutant to impair infants and children’s respiratory health. Synthesizing a growing number of epidemiological studies indicating that UOG operations are associated with adverse respiratory health effects in infants and children, this comprehensive literature review presents disturbing evidence that at least 4 other pollutant groups used and produced throughout the UOG lifecycle—benzene, formaldehyde, ozone, particulate matter, and silica dust— have well-known respiratory health effects for infants and children, including asthma, airway inflammation, and immune infection.

Given that all five UOG pollutants can also increase risk of irreversible respiratory health impacts like pulmonary damage and chronic respiratory disease, CEH’s review also discusses the public health costs (emergency room visits, hospital treatments) and socioeconomic burdens (school absenteeism) of respiratory health symptoms. However, its primary recommendation is emission reduction standards, which the EPA has timely—albeit controversially—established.

The EPA has defended itself from the criticisms it has received since it announced the new rule, calling the new methane regulations “commonsense steps” to combat climate change. While any regulations are better than none, health advocates will continue to emphasize the health consequences of all UOG infrastructure—new, developing, and existing.