By Phil McKenna
An environmental group argues the agency significantly underestimates methane emissions from the oil and gas industries. The inspector general is now investigating.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General will investigate how the agency estimates methane emissions from the oil and gas sector after an environmental group alleged that its emission estimates and regulations are based, in part, on faulty studies.
The evaluation, announced Wednesday, will focus on a pair of studies conducted jointly by the University of Texas–Austin and the Environmental Defense Fund in 2013-2014 that found methane emissions to be lower than EPA estimates. The studies, which were done in cooperation with a number of oil and gas companies, were subsequently challenged for allegedly using faulty equipment and underestimating emissions.
“This evaluation’s objectives are examining the results of and concerns/problems with the 2013 and 2014 emission studies conducted by the Environmental Defense Fund and the University of Texas-Austin,” EPA OIG spokesperson Jennifer Kaplan said in an email.
The oil and gas sector is the leading source of human-derived methane emissions in the U.S., emitting more than either the agricultural sector or landfills, according to EPA estimates. Regulation of the powerful greenhouse gas has been in dispute since the Trump administration arrived and began rolling back President Barack Obama’s efforts to rein in emissions.
A 2014 report by the agency’s inspector general’s office determined the EPA needed to do more to address methane emissions from natural gas distribution pipelines, the low-pressure pipelines buried under cities and towns that distribute gas to end users. The report found that $192 million worth of natural gas leaks from such pipelines each year, with significant implications for the climate and for consumers who are charged for the lost gas.
In 2016, the environmental group NC Warn petitioned the EPA’s inspector general’s office to investigate the University of Texas–Austin and EDF studies. The EPA declined to do so, stating in a letter to NC Warn that “this [case] is being closed.”
The office of the inspector general, an independent watchdog that polices the agency, has since reconsidered the petition.
“The decision to pursue a program evaluation on this topic is, in part, related to a 2016 request to the EPA OIG by the environmental advocacy group NC Warn,” Kaplan said.
While the NC Warn petition called for a criminal investigation, the inspector general’s office will instead conduct a program evaluation, an audit that follows different processes with different goals, Kaplan said.