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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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Oil And Gas See Regulatory Windfall Under Trump

Trump’s border wall is at a standstill, his infrastructure plan never got off the ground, and many other policy initiatives are in disarray. But one area where the Trump administration has been ruthlessly effective has been in promoting the interests of the energy industry. His federal agencies have succeeded in gutting a long list of environmental regulations affecting drilling and mining companies.

Two-years in and the regulatory climate for oil, gas and coal companies is a lot friendlier than it used to be. The New York Times did a lengthy investigation looking at the on-the-ground effects of the Trump environmental rollback bonanza.

The EPA and the Department of Interior are the two main agencies responsible for the dramatic loosening of environmental regulations. “Together their rule changes have touched nearly every aspect of environmental protection, including air pollution caused by power plants and the oil and gas industry, water pollution caused by coal mines, and toxic chemicals and pesticides used by farmers nationwide,” the New York Times wrote.

By the NYT’s count, there have been 78 federal environmental regulations that have either been undone or are in the process of being rolled back by the Trump administration. A dozen more were initially forced through, but federal courts reinstated them, ruling that the Trump administration’s efforts were not legal.

The NYT estimates that 9 federal environmental regulations related to air pollution were rolled back, and a dozen more are in the works. About 10 rules were directly related to drilling and extraction, with six more pending. “All told, the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks could lead to at least 80,000 extra deaths per decade and cause respiratory problems for more than one million people, according to a separate analysis conducted by researchers from Harvard,” the NYT concluded. Some experts think even those heavy numbers are underestimating the ultimate impact. Related: Will Exxon Greenlight This Huge LNG Project?

The list of regulations tossed into the dust bin are too long to catalog here, but a few stand out, particularly as it relates to oil and gas.

The EPA scrapped the requirement for oil and gas companies to report methane emissions, while also partially repealing limits on methane, including venting and flaring. The NYT noted that an estimated 3 billion cubic feet of natural gas is vented or flared in North Dakota each month, a volume that could heat 600,000 homes.

The Trump administration has also tried to actively promote more oil and gas exploration, using several mechanisms. Interior gutted rules on royalty rates for oil and gas leases on federal lands, which allows the industry to get away with paying very little to the federal government, critics say. The agency rescinded water pollution regulations for fracking on federal and Indian lands, and it also changed the well control and blowout preventer regulations that were tightened aver the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Interior has accelerated the pace of offshore oil auctions and reduced royalty rates to attract more companies to jump in.

In early December, the Trump administration moved to tear up protections for the sage grouse, which would effectively open up around 9 million acres for oil and gas drilling in the American West. It has given the greenlight to seismic testing on the Atlantic Coast, a precursor to offshore oil and gas drilling. As part of the 2017 tax cut plan, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is also now open to drilling. Around the same time, Interior severely curtailed the size of Bears Ears National Monument, another effort to open up land in Utah for drilling and mining. Related: The New Oil Order

One of the most significant efforts is the plan by the EPA and the Transportation Department to weaken fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks. By some estimates, the move could lead to increased oil demand by somewhere between 200,000 and 600,000 bpd by 2030.

On December 28, just days ago, the EPA proposed to weaken limits on emissions of mercury and other toxic air pollutants from power plants, arguing that they were too costly.

These are just a handful of the nearly 80 regulations undone or potentially undone. Trump may have his hands tied with new legislation now that the Democrats have taken control of the U.S. House of Representatives. But his federal agencies continue to speedily carry out their work to weaken environmental standards across the board, handing victory after victory to oil and gas interests. This will likely persist for at least the next two years.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • jay on January 02 2019 said:
    So Nick, Instead of flaring the 3 billion cubic feet of gas, why not build a pipeline and heat those 600,000 homes you opined about?
  • Lee James on January 04 2019 said:
    Sounds like "nuisance gas" is back in business. If natural gas is extracted in uneconomic quantities (the company's perspective) it's a nuisance and the cheapest, most expedient thing to do is let 'er leak or light it off.

    Environmentally-minded folk say leaking and flaring help a company's bottom-line today, but we all pay tomorrow.

    Petroleum formations are a play pen in Trump's world. "Me-first;" somebody else pays for releasing potent greenhouse gasses like methane.
  • Happy on January 04 2019 said:
    Unless you're 100% totally free of fossil fuel usage, you don't have a leg to stand on whining about oil

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