Tribal and Environmental Groups Sue Trump Administration over Methane Emissions Rollbacks

Gutting two of the most vital methane pollution protections in the midst of a global pandemic would further jeopardize public health


Siham Zniber, Earthjustice

Earthjustice, on behalf of Clean Air Council, Fort Berthold Protectors of Water and Earth Rights (POWER), and Sierra Club, filed lawsuits challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) final rules on methane emissions standards. Last month, as cases of COVID-19 continued to rise across the country, EPA gutted vital methane emissions standards for oil and gas companies that reduce toxic pollution and protect public health. 

The first rule eliminates the New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for methane and rolls back regulations for volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The second rule weakens leak detection and repair standards for the oil and gas industry by including an exception for “low-production” wells and reducing the required monitoring frequency for other equipment. These changes will result in increased emissions of methane, VOCs, and toxic air pollutants, at a time when studies have shown a proven link between air pollution and higher COVID-19 death rates. A coalition of groups, including Earthjustice, are challenging both of these rules in two separate lawsuits. 

“We live in the most heavily fracked county in Pennsylvania. Our children breathe toxic chemicals, diesel fumes, and volatile organic compounds. Stripping these standards will only make an already grave situation worse if the oil and gas industry is allowed to keep putting profits over people,” said Lois Bower-Bjornson, from the Clean Air Council. 

“VOC air emissions and other toxic air pollutants from the intensive and unconventional oil & gas extraction is harmful to both me and all tribal members. Most of the 1,831 active well on Fort Berthold Indian trust lands are targeting my tribal community of Mandaree. I know the climate-changing methane gas emitted into our air is also a threat to the environmental integrity of our remaining pre-treaty lands where I live. Our health and tribal lands are invaluable to me, and I’ll take all the steps I can to protect them. I want all tribal members to be able to breathe safe, clean air, especially in the intensive and unconventional oil & gas extraction on Fort Berthold Indian Reservation,” said Theodora Bird Bear, resident of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. 

“EPA Director Wheeler’s proposed elimination of the NSPS and the weakening of detection of gas emissions is a direct assault on tribal members’ health, quality of life, and mortality who live adjacent to the Bureau of Indian Affairs federal frack wells and well infrastructures on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The absence of EPA air quality monitoring sites on Fort Berthold compounds the issue of the ongoing unmeasured air contamination allowed from the densely populated federal wells on the western edge of Fort Berthold. Tribal families have no other option but to breathe air contaminated from methane and volatile organic compounds. Children in my community have suffered frequent nosebleeds, tribal members who have never complained of respiratory health issues are now being treated for asthma. We need Wheeler to uphold and support EPA regulations that protect health, we need the NSPS to remain intact and need strengthening of the detection of gas emissions,” said Joletta Bird Bear, member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

“EPA Administrator Wheeler has a responsibility to protect public health and safety by holding the oil and gas industry accountable for polluting our air and fueling climate change. We are challenging this most recent attack on the EPA NSPS rule because it threatens public health and will hurt not only my community on Fort Berthold but also other communities of color. Our communities here on Fort Berthold Indian Reservation (FBIR) have experienced health issues since the oil and gas industry started extraction. FBIR is now dealing with COVID-19 so now, more than ever, our community needs the Trump administration to hold polluters in the oil and gas industry accountable for threatening public health and safety. Speaking truth to power and holding our governments accountable is a proud tradition of Fort Berthold POWER. We are doing this for the safety of our children and grandchildren and that is why we are proud to be a plaintiff in this lawsuit,” said Lisa Deville, Vice-President of Fort Berthold POWER

“Methane pollution is a disaster for our air, our climate, and public health. At a time when we should be curbing pollution, the Trump administration wants to let the oil and gas industry off the hook. We won’t let them line the industry’s pockets at the expense of people’s health,” said Caitlin Miller, Earthjustice Associate Attorney. 

“With a rapidly warming planet and the most devastating global pandemic in 100 years, the Trump administration has somehow seen it fit to worsen both of these crises by attacking safeguards that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and clean up the air we breathe. We will not stand by as Trump’s EPA guts commonsense, low-cost protections against dangerous oil and gas pollution in order to pad the pockets of oil and gas executives. The courts have repeatedly rejected this administration’s attempts to give a free pass to corporate polluters, and we are confident that this will be no exception. That’s why we’re taking Trump and Wheeler to court, and it’s why we expect to win. Our families and communities deserve no less,” said Andres Restrepo, Sierra Club Staff Attorney. 

The lawsuits argue that the rules EPA has finalized are contrary to the evidence provided on the effects of methane pollution, which will disproportionately impact low income communities and communities of color. 

Background on the EPA methane emissions standards:

Methane is a major contributor to the climate crisis. It is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide and accounts for 20% of the planet’s warming. Oil, gas, and coal production are the largest industrial sources of methane emissions. Oil and gas companies leak or deliberately vent 13 million metric tons of methane into the air each year. Methane emissions from oil and gas operations are paired with toxic pollutants, like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene.

In 2016, the Obama administration’s EPA enacted the first nationwide requirements for the oil and gas industry to reduce methane emissions from its operations. These standards came after years of legal advocacy by Earthjustice. They were projected to eliminate the equivalent of 11 million metric tons of carbon pollution by 2025, as well as smog-forming pollutants and air toxics


Methane pollution
Methane pollution. (Leonid Ikan / Shutterstock)

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