Environmental update

Environmental update

August 19, 2020 | By Andrew Skroback in New York

The Trump administration weakened a major climate-change regulation in August by eliminating the obligation that oil and gas companies detect and repair methane leaks.

The head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, announced that the agency had completed the process of lifting an Obama-era methane regulation.

EPA estimates that the rule change will generate roughly $100 million a year through 2030 in economic savings. If the rule had stayed in place, it could require companies to repair and retrofit thousands of older existing oil and gas wells that are a source of significant ongoing leaks.

The rule change will allow the release of about 850,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere over the same period.

Methane is at least 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping gas.

Wheeler cited EPA data showing that leaks from domestic oil and gas wells have remained steady over the past decade, even while production has increased.

Newer studies indicate that methane emissions from drilling sites in the United States are more extensive than the agency's statistics, with methane levels climbing steadily nationwide.

Exxon, Shell, BP and other major companies had urged the Trump administration to keep the controls in place.

Those companies have invested millions of dollars to promote natural gas as a cleaner option than coal in the nation's power plants since natural gas produces about half as much carbon dioxide when burned. Unrestricted leaks of methane could undermine that message.

Flood Risk

Twice as many properties in the United States may be susceptible to flooding than previously thought.

New calculations by the First Street Foundation, a non-profit research group, that take into account sea-level rise, rainfall and flooding along smaller creeks not mapped by the federal government suggest that 14.6 million properties are at risk from a 100-year flood, not the 8.7 million properties shown on federal government flood maps.

A 100-year flood is one with a 1% chance of striking in any given year.

The First Street Foundation created its flood model using federal elevation and rainfall data and coastal flooding estimates from hurricanes. The foundation then checked its results against a national database of flood claims and historic flood paths.

US government flood maps managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency guide developers in terms of where and how to build and whether flood insurance is appropriate, and guide lenders in determining whether the flood risk is too great to lend.

If correct, the new data suggest that developers, banks, insurers, homeowners and government officials have been making decisions with information that understates risk.

Nationwide Permits

The US Supreme Court reinstated most uses of a nationwide permit, called NWP 12, that, among other things, allows pipeline and utility trenching and construction activity in or adjacent to wetlands and other waters regulated under the Clean Water Act.

Pipeline and transmission-line developers need permission from the US Army Corps of Engineers before they can build in or disturb such wetlands or waters.

The court allowed developers to rely again on the NWP 12 permit as such permission nationwide in a one-paragraph unsigned order in July.

A federal district court in Montana had blocked reliance on the permit earlier in the year in connection with construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. The district court action had frozen construction at sites across the country and not just on the Keystone XL pipeline.

The Supreme Court order did not lift the injunction against use of the NWP 12 permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. That project remains in limbo until the Supreme Court decides whether to hear a case involving the pipeline. The court said that if it decides not to hear the case, the injunction delaying construction will be lifted. If it decides to hear the case, then whether the injunction will be lifted will turn on whatever decision the court reaches in the case.

The debate around the NWP 12 permit has focused on whether the US Army Corps failed to assess, in conjunction with other agencies, the cumulative impacts of the permit on endangered species before it reauthorized the permit in 2017.

By law, the Army Corps must review all nationwide permits every five years. The district court found that it failed to do the interagency consultation required under the Endangered Species Act before renewing NWP 12 in 2017. The district court later narrowed the scope of its injunction to block only construction of new oil and gas pipelines, but the matter was already on appeal.

The Clean Water Act regulates construction and development activities near wetlands and other regulated waters. Section 404 of the act requires a permit before dredged or fill material may be discharged into any waters of the United States.

While some projects require site-specific permitting, the Clean Water Act allows the use of nationally applicable "general permits" for routine activities under certain circumstances.

NWP 12 is one of 52 general permits that the US Army Corps has issued under Clean Water Act section 404 that cover different categories of activities that are similar in nature, will cause only minimal adverse environmental effects when performed separately and will have only minimal cumulative adverse effect on the environment.

NWP 12 is a general permit that authorizes discharges associated with the construction, maintenance, repair and removal of oil and gas pipelines, electric transmission and collection lines, and telephone, cable TV and internet cables.

The NWP program offers a streamlined permitting process for projects that qualify, which are those that will have only minor impacts on regulated waters. Specifically, NWP 12 authorizes discharges that result in the loss of up to half an acre of waters of the US. Discharges causing loss of less than a tenth of an acre qualify for self-certification without the need to notify the Army Corps.

Where a site-specific permit is required, the permitting process can take much longer.

NWP 12 is widely used by the utility industry. The ongoing litigation should be monitored until the Army Corps completes its statutory review process. Questions will remain about the viability of NWP 12 until the Army Corps completes this process.

There is a risk of future litigation to challenge the viability of NWP 12 more generally or even the viability of other nationwide permits where the Army Corps failed to perform the required review and interagency consultation.

All of the current nationwide Army Corps permits expire in 2022 when they come up for another five-year review. The Army Corps could start that review process soon as a way forward.

In the meantime, the Army Corps is proposing numerous changes to the its nationwide permit program for dredge-and-fill activity to speed regulatory approval of projects.

Among the proposals issued by the Army Corps in early August is the elimination of a 300-linear foot limit for losses of stream bed, the division of NWP 12 into three separate permits, and the creation of a new permit for water reuse and reclamation facilities.

"We are proposing these modifications to simplify and clarify the NWPs, reduce burdens on the regulated public, and continue to comply with the statutory requirement that these NWPs authorize only activities with no more than minimal individual and cumulative adverse environmental effects," the Corps said.

The Corps said it is proposing to divide NWP 12 into three separate nationwide permits that address differences in how different linear projects are constructed, the substances they convey, and the different standards and best management practices that help ensure that nationwide permits authorize only those activities that have no more than minimal adverse environmental effects.

The new NWP 12 would authorize only oil and natural gas pipeline activities. A proposed NWP C would authorize electric utility line and telecommunications activities, and a proposed NWP D would authorize other utility line activities that convey other substances, such as potable water, sewage, wastewater, stormwater, brine or industrial products that are not petrochemicals.

The Army Corps said it wants to remove electric utility and telecommunications lines and pipelines and mains that convey stormwater and sewage from NWP 12 because of "the differences in the relative amounts of ground disturbance and other related activities, including impacts to wetlands and other waters."

The proposal will be open to public comment upon publication.

Dominion Energy and Duke Energy announced in July that they were canceling the Atlantic Coast pipeline that would have shipped natural gas from West Virginia to North Carolina and Virginia. They said the decision by the Montana federal court to enjoin the use of NWP 12 was the last straw for the 600-mile pipeline.