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Groups Sue Trump's EPA for Rolling Back Climate Standards

Groups Sue Trump's EPA for Rolling Back Climate Standards
Methane flaring at an oil and gas well in Colorado. Wild Earth Guardians

By Joanne Spalding and Andres Restrepo

The Sierra Club and its allies sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt today for delaying crucial safeguards that reduce climate pollution, smog-forming compounds and air toxins from oil and gas facilities. This action represents the first lawsuit against the Trump administration for rolling back EPA climate standards.

Unfortunately, there will surely be many more lawsuits to come: Trump's decision last week to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord—egged on by Scott Pruitt—demonstrates the crass and reckless disregard this president has for public health and the environment (to say nothing of his contempt for science, diplomacy and even smart business sense).

This same disregard is apparent in Pruitt's decision to suspend these critical leak detection and repair ("LDAR") requirements for the oil and gas sector, which were finalized under the Obama administration and were scheduled to take effect last Saturday. Pruitt has moved to delay these vital protections by 90 days on legally baseless grounds, and is planning to delay them indefinitely after that. We anticipate that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, where we filed our case, will strike down this lawless action.

A little background on the LDAR program is in order. Leaking oil and gas equipment is one of the country's biggest sources of methane pollution, a dangerous greenhouse gas that is 87 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the planet. We won't be able to curb the worst effects of climate change unless we limit harmful methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. In addition, when they leak methane, these same equipment parts emit smog- and soot-forming volatile organic compounds, which cause serious lung and heart problems, and air toxins like benzene and formaldehyde, known human carcinogens. Fixing leaks of one pollutant at oil and gas wells limits emissions of all three pollutants.

Last June, EPA finalized standards requiring oil and gas site operators to limit their emissions of these dangerous pollutants. The heart of EPA's standards is its LDAR program, which requires operators of certain sources—including fracked oil and gas wells—to find and repair leaking equipment at regular intervals. This program will provide up to 45 percent of the standards' reductions of smog- and soot-forming pollutants, over half of its methane reductions, and nearly 90 percent of its reductions in air toxins. The final standard provided industry operators with a full year to prepare before having to complete the first mandatory LDAR survey by June 3 of this year.

In April, however, Scott Pruitt announced that EPA would reconsider certain aspects of the LDAR program at the request of the fossil fuel industry and would delay the entire program's start date by three months. Pruitt's action came as little surprise: remember, this is the same guy who spent months whispering into Donald Trump's ear urging him to trash the Paris accord and the same guy who, as Oklahoma Attorney General, sued EPA over a dozen times to weaken environmental protections. And he's not stopping there—last week, Pruitt notified the Office of Management and Budget that he plans to seek an indefinite suspension of the LDAR program while he looks for ways to withdraw or weaken the standards for good.

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA can only delay a finalized emission standard if a petitioning party can identify some centrally relevant aspect of the standard that it had no opportunity to address during the public comment period. Otherwise, any delay by the agency is illegal. Pruitt claims to have found two narrow aspects of the LDAR program that meet these criteria, on which grounds he is reconsidering and delaying the entire LDAR program. He is also suspending two other aspects of the standards separate from LDAR. But Pruitt is simply wrong: on each of these topics, EPA specifically requested comment in its original proposal, and it updated the final standards in response to the extensive feedback it received from industry groups and others stakeholders. Pruitt's delay is therefore a blatant violation of the law.

Pruitt's illegal stalling tactics are nothing more than a giveaway to his close friends in the fossil fuel business. To everyone else, they are just more bad news from an administration that delivers little else. EPA's LDAR program will provide real and lasting benefits to communities affected by oil and gas pollution and climate change. Once emitted, methane stays in the atmosphere for an average of twelve years before decaying into carbon dioxide, which then lasts for hundreds or even thousands of years. The LDAR program will significantly curb these emissions; Pruitt's delay will simply kick the can down the road while dangerous pollution builds up in our atmosphere. In addition, the delay will occur during the summer, when smog formation is at its worst. According to one analysis, over 2,000 active new oil and gas wells exist in counties with unlawfully high levels of ozone—the primary ingredient of smog. If Pruitt gets his way, these well site operators can continue to let their fracking rigs dump harmful pollution into the air with no federal safeguards to stop them.

Particularly appalling is the fact that many of the communities that will suffer the most are the very ones that Pruitt and Trump claim to care about. In his announcement last week, Trump said that he was "elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris." As it turns out, Allegheny County—where Pittsburgh sits—and its neighboring counties have seen approximately 275 new gas wells drilled since EPA first proposed the LDAR program, over 70 of which are already actively producing oil or natural gas. Each one of these counties has ozone levels that are above EPA's legal limits, and Pennsylvania lacks its own mandatory LDAR requirements. Trump and Pruitt may pay lip service to western Pennsylvanians, but the administration's actions show that they are willing to sell out these communities in order to help dirty industry reap a few more dollars in profit.

Families and communities around the country that are affected by pollution and climate change deserve better than this. That's why we took Pruitt to court today, and that's why we'll keep fighting his and Donald Trump's reckless energy and environment agenda every step of the way.

Joanne Spalding is the chief climate counsel for the Sierra Club. Andres Restrepo is a staff attorney for the Sierra Club's Environmental Law Program.

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