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Unstable Ground

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Monday, October 3, 2022

This article was produced in partnership with Type Investigations, where Adam Federman is a reporting fellow. Along an open stretch of tundra far above the Arctic Circle, a gas flare burns bright against the early morning sky. The oil production facility, about eight miles north of the Alaska Native Village of Nuiqsut, sits like a ship on the horizon. Known as CD1, it is ground zero for ConocoPhillips’ Alpine Field, a sprawling network of gravel roads, pipelines, and well pads that covers about 165 acres of land. The CD1 pad houses hundreds of employees and has its own airstrip to receive direct flights from Anchorage. ConocoPhillips refers to it as “our town.”  On March 4, the fossil fuel company reported an uncontrolled gas leak at the facility. According to ConocoPhillips’ own analysis, an estimated 7.2 million cubic feet of natural gas was released into the atmosphere during the first five days of the leak, equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of over 3,000 cars. Residents in Nuiqsut complained of headaches and nausea. ConocoPhillips brought in industry specialists from Texas with experience fighting oil well fires in Iraq and Kuwait. Then, around noon on March 7, the company decided to evacuate 300 employees from the pad out of “an abundance of caution.” It would take nearly a month before the leak was fully plugged.   Nuiqsut’s mayor, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, had been getting little sleep during those first few weeks and was anxious about the village’s air quality — an ongoing concern for residents of Nuiqsut, which is surrounded by oil and gas development. ConocoPhillips had reached out to the community to provide updates, but information was hard to come by, in part because it took several weeks for the company to fully understand what had happened. Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak looks out on the village of Nuiqsut. Nathaniel Wilder More than a week passed before the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency that regulates drilling on both state and federal land, had someone on the ground at CD1. The state’s spill response division, known as the Prevention, Preparedness, and Response program, or PPR, was frustrated with ConocoPhillips’ response, according to dozens of emails obtained by Grist and Type Investigations. “I’m having difficulty getting the information PPR needs regarding the situation at CD 1,” the northern region manager wrote in an email to ConocoPhillips nearly a week into the event.  While some questions remain unanswered more than six months later, it’s clear now that the gas leak at Alpine illuminated the ways that climate change is amplifying the risks associated with oil and gas drilling in the Arctic — and even creating new ones. Permafrost thaw, which is accelerated by drilling and new construction, played an important role in the leak: In its incident report submitted to the state, ConocoPhillips explained that the heat generated by the injection of drilling fluids deep underground had thawed the permafrost layer — ground that had been frozen for thousands of years — to a depth of about 1,000 feet, which ultimately allowed the gas to reach the surface. Sandhill Cranes stand near the Alpine development area north of Nuiqsut. Nathaniel Wilder But the problem didn’t end there. This same thawing process had affected some of the neighboring wells — there are about 50 wells on the CD1 pad, each about 10 feet apart — forming what Steve Lewis, a retired petroleum engineer who worked in the region for 20 years, described as a “gas highway,” creating multiple pathways for the gas to migrate. In its report, ConocoPhillips called this phenomenon a “thaw bulb.” A similar phenomenon is being replicated across Alaska’s North Slope region at a time when the Arctic is warming two to four times faster than the rest of the planet. According to an analysis by researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, more than half of the near-surface permafrost on the North Slope could disappear by 2100 if emissions aren’t curbed. Soil temperatures at Prudhoe Bay, which is about 60 miles east of Nuiqsut, have already warmed by about 6 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 1970s.  Permafrost thaw can cause the ground to buckle and in some cases collapse. Roads, pipelines, and well pads could all potentially be compromised and even in some cases rendered unusable, according to Vladimir Romanovsky, a permafrost expert and emeritus professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Portions of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the 800-mile conduit that runs from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, have already been damaged due to thawing permafrost. Pipes curve near the CD1 pad at Alpine oil development area northwest of Nuiqsut, left. Windblown signs, right, stand long the road in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Nathaniel Wilder According to interviews with former petroleum engineers and geologists who have worked on the North Slope, state and federal oversight of oil and gas drilling has not kept pace with the changes wrought by a warming climate. The Alpine leak exposed deep flaws in ConocoPhillips’ understanding of the region’s geology, but regulators at the Department of the Interior and the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or AOGCC, continue to rely largely on the company’s assurances and proprietary data as it embarks on major new development projects. Despite the risks, Alaska’s political leaders remain determined to expand oil and gas development on the North Slope, including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In Alaska, the fossil fuel industry is deeply intertwined with the state officials who regulate it: Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy’s former chief of staff, Ben Stevens, is now vice president of external affairs at ConocoPhillips Alaska. Dunleavy also appointed Jeremy Price, another top aide and a former lobbyist with the American Petroleum Institute, to head the AOGCC, which is overseeing the investigation into the Alpine leak and has not yet released its findings. (Price stepped down in late September to work for an oil refinery out of state.)   The company’s own preliminary analysis revealed several missteps that led to the leak. “ConocoPhillips screwed up in a number of different ways,” said Mark Myers, a retired petroleum geologist who served as director of Alaska’s Division of Oil and Gas from 2001 to 2005. In a written statement, an AOGCC spokesperson said that the agency is aware of problems created by thawing permafrost and has addressed the issue in the past by modifying its drilling requirements. “AOGCC has some of the strongest regulations in the country in terms of drilling and well construction,” the spokesperson wrote. The commission would not comment on whether it plans to make additional changes because of the Alpine leak but said it “continuously evaluates the adequacy of our regulations.” Am aerial view of the MT-7 pad near Nuiqsut. Nathaniel Wilder The Department of the Interior says it has collected permafrost temperature data from unplugged legacy wells on the North Slope for more than 20 years, in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, and continues to monitor the changes closely. “Preliminary data supports temperatures warming at approximately 0.1°C/year,” the department said in a written statement, “though additional data is needed to better characterize the changes spatially.”  But long-held assumptions about oil and gas drilling on the North Slope may no longer apply. Scientists and engineers who spoke to Grist and Type Investigations were far less certain about the future of development in an area experiencing such rapid warming.  “The assumed structural integrity of the permafrost is basic to the design of both surface facilities and well construction,” Lewis said. “If that premise is questionable, the entire design philosophy of North Slope development becomes suspect.” As ConocoPhillips struggled to control the leak during those first few days in March, Nuiqsut residents were worried that a single spark could lead to a far more dangerous situation. If just one well had caught fire, according to Lewis, it could have led to a series of explosions. Terza Hopson, a young mother who is expecting a second child in October, drove her family and their two dogs and cat to Anchorage, more than 800 miles away. Hopson said that she grew alarmed when she heard of ConocoPhillips’ decision to evacuate its own employees, as well as rumors that the company was bringing in buses to prepare for a larger emergency. At least 20 other families left the village during that first week, according to Ahtuangaruak. Terza Hopson poses for a photo in the Nuiqsut community center. After the gas leak in March, she drove 25 hours to Anchorage with her family. Nathaniel Wilder “We were scared,” Hopson told me. “My concern was my unborn child. I wasn’t going to try to endanger my child.”  Nevertheless, oil and gas development continues nearby. As Mayor Ahtuangaruak focused on keeping her town safe during the leak, she was also preparing for the next big battle on the North Slope. ConocoPhillips’ Willow project, one of the largest proposed onshore oil and gas developments in the United States, lies about 30 miles west of Alpine in the government-managed National Petroleum Reserve. The Department of the Interior approved the project during the final months of the Trump administration. In August of last year, however, a federal judge ruled that the legally required environmental analysis did not sufficiently address the project’s anticipated greenhouse gas emissions, among other flaws, and ordered the department to redo portions of its environmental impact statement. If the Willow project is approved, it would allow for more than 250 wells, dozens of new gravel roads, and up to two airstrips. The project would produce an estimated 284 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over its 30-year lifetime, according to the most recent environmental impact statement. The Center for American Progress, a Democrat-aligned think tank, has described the project as a “carbon disaster.” Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak drives by the location of the recent gas leak. Nathaniel Wilder Nevertheless, the Biden administration has supported Willow since the president took office, even though it threatens to derail the White House’s climate goals by locking in decades of fossil fuel drilling. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has squeezed global energy supplies, has only strengthened calls to boost oil and gas production on the North Slope. In early July, the Interior Department released a new draft of the environmental analysis providing a wider range of possible development scenarios, including one that would reduce the project’s overall footprint. The department has sent mixed signals in its rollout of the document. It originally posted an obsolete version, which included language suggesting that the agency was legally obligated to greenlight the project. This draft was later removed and replaced with one that did not indicate a preferred development scenario. The department also initially promised Nuiqsut a longer comment period, but it later reversed course without explanation and ultimately gave the public just 45 days, the minimum required by law. A final decision is expected later this year. This has all served to heighten tensions in Nuiqsut, where Willow has been a source of controversy for several years. In 2019, tribal leadership passed resolutions opposing the project and urging federal and state agencies to undertake baseline environmental studies before approving any new development. “The Tribal Council of the Native Village of Nuiqsut objects to the continued practice of approving oil and gas exploration and development activities in a piecemeal fashion and without [a] thorough understanding of how these activities are affecting our lands, waters, and air,” the council wrote. An aerial of the village of Nuiqsut. Nathaniel Wilder Snow covers houses in the village of Nuiqsuit. Nathaniel Wilder Photographs of elders hang in the community hall in Nuiqsut. Nathaniel Wilder Children play near the Nuiqsuit community center, left. Photographs of elders hang in the community hall in Nuiqsut, right. Nathaniel Wilder Nathaniel Wilder That same year, the village filed its first-ever lawsuit challenging the Interior Department’s approval of ConocoPhillips’ winter exploration work. A court ultimately decided in the company’s favor, but it marked a turning point in relations between Nuiqsut and the fossil fuel industry on the North Slope. Ahtuangaruak, a former physician’s assistant and public health aid, was elected mayor in November 2021, and she attributes her victory in part to growing opposition to new oil and gas development.  Nearly 100 percent of Nuiqsut households depend on subsistence hunting and fishing, which has already been affected by decades of industrial development. According to the Bureau of Land Management, which is part of the Interior Department, oil and gas activity has made it more difficult for residents to access traditional use areas. Willow’s footprint would overlap with some of the most important hunting and fishing grounds in the region. Under ConocoPhillips’ preferred development scenario, there would be an estimated 3.2 million vehicle trips over the lifetime of the project, many of them in areas currently used by subsistence hunters. “We don’t know what’s going to happen once they get that project going,” said Gordon Brown, a member of the village corporation’s subsistence oversight panel. “Are we going to lose our caribou, or are we not? That’s the big thing.” Caribou move north toward calving grounds along the Dalton Highway, which leads to the oil camp of Prudhoe Bay. Nathaniel Wilder Some of the development, including gravel roads and pipelines, would be built within a special conservation area around Teshekpuk Lake, the largest body of water on the North Slope and critical calving grounds for the Teshekpuk caribou herd. And, just as it did with Alpine, ConocoPhillips has plans to expand its development further west, designs it refers to as “greater Willow 1 and 2.” Ultimately, the final decision on Willow will be made not in Nuiqsut but well over 3,000 miles away in Washington, D.C. In April, Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland traveled to Alaska, fulfilling a promise she’d made to Alaska’s two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, during her confirmation hearings. Her trip included a stop in Utqiagvik, the North Slope borough seat, where she sat down with local leadership and representatives from Native corporations, including Kuukpik and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, according to a Department of the Interior employee who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the event. Kuukpik and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation have voiced their support for the Willow project. Haaland’s trip came just two months after Russia invaded Ukraine and threw the world into an energy crisis. A few days before she arrived, Senator Sullivan and North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower published an op-ed urging the secretary to quickly complete the Willow environmental impact statement and invoke emergency measures to expand oil and gas development in the National Petroleum Reserve. A rearview mirror shows a pipeline south of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Nathaniel Wilder “Roughly the size of Indiana, the [National Petroleum Reserve] was set aside in 1923 specifically for oil production in case of emergencies,” they wrote. “We believe that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the disruption this is causing energy markets, and the astronomical prices Americans are paying at the pump, all constitute an emergency.” The new draft environmental impact statement published in July includes a brief, two-paragraph discussion of the events at Alpine and notes that the same shallow layer of sandstone, known as the Halo formation, that was the source of the leak is also present at Willow. But key questions related to the leak remain unanswered, scientists say, raising concerns about the potential for similar accidents if Willow moves forward. In particular, experts who spoke to Grist and Type Investigations say they were surprised that ConocoPhillips, despite decades of drilling in the Arctic, was unable to detect the presence of significant amounts of natural gas in the area where the leak occurred. The company, which has since conducted new three-dimensional seismic surveys of the area, has not explained the anomaly. Read Next Don’t Look Down Lois Parshley In a written statement, Dennis Nuss, a ConocoPhillips spokesperson, said the company took federal guidelines and environmental concerns into account when designing the Willow project. “Arctic engineering principles are present throughout Willow’s design, and they include practices that are widely used and designed to promote safe, environmentally sound operations,” Nuss said. Meanwhile, the draft environmental impact statement for Willow has only a few pages devoted to permafrost thaw, an issue that will continue to complicate drilling on the North Slope. The Interior Department said it would not comment on any questions related to the Alpine leak, which occurred on state land, including whether it has had access to the new seismic data.  According to ConocoPhillips, human error was the immediate cause of the leak: Pressure limits exceeded during a routine drilling operation damaged a portion of the well known as the casing shoe about a half-mile underground, creating the initial pathway for gas to escape. Poor cement bonding, which adds another layer of protection between the casing and the surrounding rock, also compromised the integrity of the well. Between March 1 and March 3, before the leak was reported, warning signs were also missed or left unaddressed, ConocoPhillips has acknowledged. Boxes of supplies sit on the Kuukpik Corporation staging grounds in the Alpine oil development region just north of Nuiqsut. Nathaniel Wilder In an April letter to the Department of the Interior, a coalition of environmental groups urged the agency to undertake a more rigorous analysis of potential impacts from gas leaks, blowouts, oil spills, and other accidents. “The leak demonstrates that ConocoPhillips cannot guarantee the safe operation of oil development projects in the region,” they wrote. In a written statement, ConocoPhillips defended its safety record on the North Slope and said that the permitting process and design principles used at Willow account for the future effects of a rapidly warming climate.  “ConocoPhillips recognizes that it is a privilege to operate on the North Slope and in Alaska, and we have done so safely and responsibly for more than 50 years,” Nuss said. “When planning and permitting projects like Willow, the company works with regulatory agencies, local communities, and other stakeholders to assess and mitigate community concerns and potential impacts related to air emissions, subsistence activities, surface disturbance, water use, wildlife, and people.” The company also said the Willow project would come with significant benefits for the public — and that there is no reason to further delay construction. Depending on when the Interior Department issues its final decision, ConocoPhillips says it could break ground on the project as soon as this winter. Just over a week after the court ruling vacating the Willow environmental impact statement in August 2021, ConocoPhillips sent a letter to the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska office describing the flaws in the document as “discrete and fixable” and asking to work with the agency to “expeditiously move the permitting process forward.” That’s exactly what they did. According to public records obtained by Grist and Type Investigations through a Freedom of Information Act request, ConocoPhillips and the bureau had their first meeting a few days later.  Trucks carry equipment staged in the village for use in nearby oil development projects. Nathaniel Wilder “It shows the depth of influence ConocoPhillips has no matter which party is in office,” said Bridget Psarianos, a former Interior Department employee who now works as a staff attorney at Trustees for Alaska, an environmental organization representing groups who have filed suit against the department over the Willow project. The draft environmental statement also reveals how the Interior Department and other regulatory agencies depend on assurances from the oil and gas industry that may not always turn out to be reliable, especially in a rapidly warming environment. The statement echoes some of the same assumptions that led to the leak at ConocoPhillips’ Alpine site. According to the incident report, ConocoPhillips’ decision to forgo the use of cement casing around the portion of the well where the leak occurred was based on the assumption that there was little to no gas present in the 3,000-to-4,000-foot deep formation. (In ConocoPhillips’ words, it was not considered a “significant hydrocarbon zone.”) This turned out to be wrong. But Lewis, the former petroleum engineer, said that Interior appears to have reached a similar conclusion for Willow, where the same geological formation is found, without providing much evidence to support it. In a written statement, the Interior Department said it made its determination after reviewing seismic studies and proprietary data from wells drilled in the project area, which cannot be released to the public.  Layers of dirt and snow pile up in the village of Nuiqsut. Nathaniel Wilder Lewis said that the paragraphs in the draft environmental impact statement devoted to the leak rely almost entirely on information provided by ConocoPhillips and “read like industry-supplied text.” (The Interior Department declined to comment on Lewis’ assertion.) Because the geological formation in the Willow project occurs at a shallower depth than it does at Alpine, the Interior Department says planned wells would be fully cemented, providing additional protection in the event of an accident. “This would further reduce the already very low risk of a shallow-gas leak,” the environmental impact statement reads.      But Mark Myers, the retired petroleum geologist and former director of the Alaska Division of Oil and Gas, said that the agency needs to do more to ensure that leaks like the one at Alpine don’t happen again. Myers argued that the agency should incorporate whatever ConocoPhillips has learned about the underlying geology through newly conducted seismic surveys at Alpine into its planning for the Willow project. In addition, he said there should be a more robust permafrost monitoring program at the Willow site in order to evaluate changes and possibly modify standards for pad construction.   The Department of the Interior said that the current design of the Willow project “accounts for the expected conditions” over the project’s anticipated 30-year lifespan. Meanwhile, ConocoPhillips continues to expand its footprint in and around Nuiqsut. In May, the company announced that it had successfully tested a new Alpine rig dubbed “The Beast” capable of drilling up to 7.5 miles in any direction. It’s often noted that Nuiqsut is encircled by oil and gas development. That circle is growing closer.  Late one evening in May, Ahtuangaruak drove me out along the road that runs south of the village. The sun was still bright, and snow geese angled overhead. We passed a lake that provides Nuiqsut’s drinking water and eventually came to a bluff overlooking the Colville River, not far from where the original inhabitants of the village had settled in the early 1970s. Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak drives along an oil development road west of Nuiqsut. Nathaniel Wilder Ahtuangaruak pointed out seismic tracks on the surface of the river, still covered in snow, running in a grid-like pattern toward the village. Kuukpik, Nuiqsut’s village corporation, had recently completed new seismic surveys covering 59 square miles of land as part of another project, known as Narwhal, including areas in and around the village. These surveys will be used to provide the location and estimates of oil and gas reserves in the area. “We fought it,” said Ahtuangaruak. “They did it anyway.”  Looking out at a landscape that had undergone profound changes in the last 40 years, Ahtuangaruak explained that Nuiqsut is an Iñupiat word meaning “beautiful place on the horizon.” She still believes that to be true, but doesn’t know how much more development the village can endure. Part of the area surveyed this winter and spring includes leases directly underneath the village that have already been sold. The buyer? ConocoPhillips. This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Unstable Ground on Oct 3, 2022.

How thawing permafrost threatens a Biden-supported plan to drill in Alaska's Arctic

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Texas will have to cut methane emissions from oil fields under new federal climate rule

The Biden Administration announced a crackdown on methane emissions, a major driver of climate change. Major oil and gas companies also signed on to a voluntary net-zero commitment.

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news. The Environmental Protection Agency on Saturday finalized a long-anticipated climate regulation that will require oil and gas operators to dramatically reduce how much methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is escaping from equipment in many oil fields across Texas. The rule achieves a major goal of the Biden Administration to crack down on methane, the second-largest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide. The regulation was announced early Saturday morning in Dubai at the 28th international United Nations climate summit, known as COP 28. Methane can trap much more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide but lasts in the atmosphere for a few decades rather than a few centuries— meaning that emission reductions are felt relatively quickly. With nations behind on their commitments in the Paris Climate Accords international treaty to hold the Earth to 1.5 degrees celsius of warming compared to pre-industrial levels, attention has turned to methane for its potential to slow climate change in the short term and buy some time. “This is historic news for our climate, for our future, and for our children,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan during a press conference Saturday in Dubai. “The standards today, while ambitious, are common sense.” Global concentrations of methane in the atmosphere have dramatically increased in recent years: In 2021, methane increased by almost 18 parts per billion in the atmosphere, the biggest increase in a single year since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s records began in 1984. In 2022, atmospheric methane increased by 14 parts per billion, the fourth largest increase on record. Most of the methane emissions in the U.S. come from the energy sector — especially in Texas, the nation’s largest oil and gas producing state which currently lacks a strict rule to capture escaping methane emissions from energy infrastructure. The Permian Basin in particular is a major methane hotspot, and operators there have long been criticized by environmental groups for failing to ensure equipment isn’t venting huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere. The rules, which were first drafted two years ago, were modeled in part after state-level methane regulations in New Mexico and Colorado. At a press conference in Dubai, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham applauded the EPA rule as one that would ensure states that neighbor each other — like Texas and New Mexico — would have “apples to apples” regulations. “Having federal rules means that my border states, and the very same companies who are operating in both states, will adhere to the same standards,” Lujan Grisham said. Oil and gas companies will be required to phase out routine flaring of natural gas, a relatively common practice in which companies burn off excess gas that is unearthed along with oil. If a flare isn’t wholly lit, or the flame goes out and is not re-ignited, then the raw methane vents into the atmosphere. Companies also burn off gas when drilling wells or when shutting down a facility on short notice, such as during a weather emergency. Routine flaring without permission from regulators is barred by state law, but companies frequently request exceptions from the rules; the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees the state’s oil and gas industry, authorized about 3,600 venting and flaring exceptions in 2022, according to agency data. Yet some independent analyses have found that oil and gas companies are likely flaring gas in the field more frequently than approved by state regulators. The oil and gas industry has in recent years touted its own efforts to cut methane emissions in the oil field. Early on Saturday, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced that 50 oil and gas companies — including Exxon Mobil, Occidental Petroleum, Shell, and several national oil companies — had agreed to meet net-zero emissions in their operations by 2050, end routine flaring by 2030, and reach significantly curtail methane emissions in the oil field. Darren Woods, the CEO of ExxonMobil, headquartered in Spring, a suburb of Houston, also made an appearance at COP 28 this week. Woods is reportedly the first Exxon chief executive to attend one of the climate summits. Some industry groups on Saturday did not immediately oppose the EPA’s new regulation. For example, the American Petroleum Institute, a major trade group for U.S. oil and gas companies, said it was still reviewing the rule on Saturday, and said that it shares the administration’s goal to reduce methane emissions. “This rule must balance emissions reductions with the need to continue meeting rising energy demand,” said Dustin Meyer, API’s senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs, in a statement. However, in comments submitted to the EPA earlier this year, the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers wrote that the regulations would be costly and lauded industry-led efforts. “Burdensome federal requirements on producers are unnecessary,” wrote Jason Modglin, president of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, which represents independent oil companies. A major tenant of the regulation is that it will require companies to monitor their equipment for methane leaks — another big source of emissions from the oilfield — and allows companies to choose from many different types of technology to do so. That was a sticking point that many industry groups asked regulators to include. The rule also creates a new “super emitter” program in which large methane releases are identified and targeted. Last year, the federal agency did some limited helicopter flyovers of the Permian Basin in an attempt to identify some of those methane pollution hot spots. States will be tasked with enforcing the regulations, and will have two years to create a plan for how they’ll implement them, an extension of an earlier proposal. Texas’ environmental and energy agencies had both requested the EPA extend the deadline. The Administration has estimated that the regulation will cut 58 million tons of methane emissions between 2024 and 2038, which is nearly as much carbon dioxide emitted by the power sector in 2021. However, in comments submitted earlier this year, Texas environmental and energy agencies characterized those estimates as inflated and “unrealistic.” But Texas regulators have already suggested that they believe the federal regulation could be vulnerable to legal challenges: In comments submitted to the EPA in February, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Railroad Commission warned of “overreach” by EPA in light of a Supreme Court decision last year that significantly curtailed the federal agency’s power to regulate emissions. The Texas regulatory agencies argued in their comments that responding to climate change could be considered a “major policy question,” which the Supreme Court has found should be decided by Congress rather than federal bureaucrats, and that “agencies have only the authority granted to them by Congress and no such grant to address global climate change.” Texas’ state regulatory agencies also complained in the comments that there are too many requirements before the state can approve requests by facilities, including old facilities nearing the end of their life, to waive some of the stricter emissions requirements. Texas argues that the red tape will effectively “force” states with large oil industries to apply the rule as written and “eliminate discretion.” The state, under Attorney General Ken Paxton, frequently and enthusiastically sues the Biden Administration over regulations it views as onerous or an economic threat to the energy sector. An EPA official told The Texas Tribune that the agency doesn’t intend for those requirements to be onerous for state agencies. Texas environment groups on Saturday praised the new regulation given Texas’ lax attitude toward greenhouse gas emissions. Elizabeth Lieberknecht, a regulatory and legislative manager for the Environmental Defense Fund, called the regulation “game changing in Texas.” Luke Metzger, the executive director of Environment Texas, said the federal regulations are necessary since state regulators appear unwilling to take serious steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from Texas’ massive oil sector. Texas, Metzger said, “needs strong federal regulations to reduce methane emissions— maybe more than any other state.” Disclosure: Environmental Defense Fund, Exxon Mobil Corporation and Texas Alliance of Energy Producers have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Biden Administration Announces Dramatic Plan to Cut Methane Pollution

The Biden administration announced an ambitious new plan on Saturday to dramatically curb methane emissions, the second biggest cause of global warming after carbon dioxide. It would require oil and gas producers to detect and fix leaks of methane for the first time. The announcement came as the United Nations hosted the Cop28 climate summit […]

The Biden administration announced an ambitious new plan on Saturday to dramatically curb methane emissions, the second biggest cause of global warming after carbon dioxide. It would require oil and gas producers to detect and fix leaks of methane for the first time. The announcement came as the United Nations hosted the Cop28 climate summit in Dubai, where Vice President Kamala Harris delivered brief remarks. “We must have the ambition to meet this moment, to accelerate our investments and to lead with courage and conviction,” she said. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that the new rule would prevent 58 million tons of methane emissions from 2024 to 2038—roughly equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted annually by coal-fired power plants in the United States. The administrative rule doesn’t need congressional approval and will take effect next year, although conservative groups are likely to challenge it in court. (The US Supreme Court has already placed limits on the administration’s efforts to fight climate change.) Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, called the policy “the most impactful climate rule that the United States has ever adopted in terms of addressing temperatures we would otherwise see.” In a separate announcement at the UN summit, the world’s 50 largest oil producers reached a new pact to reduce methane emissions by 80 to 90 percent by the end of the decade. Still, environmental groups have criticized Biden for not doing more to fight climate change by targeting fossil fuels like oil, coal, and gas. The administration has approved new drilling leases this year and domestic oil production has surged. The United States is poised to extract record amounts of oil and gas in 2023, which is on track to be the hottest year on record. Biden skipped the UN summit to focus on other issues, including Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. Environmentalists have also faulted the UN for holding the summit in the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s largest oil producers. The president of the summit is the head of the state-owned oil company.

After thousands of heat deaths, states move to protect young residents

States are responding to the surge in heat-related deaths with strategies that include public warnings, ice baths and cooling centers for those without air conditioning.

After two years of record-breaking heat that brought a surge of deaths and health emergencies, several states have enacted or are considering measures designed to protect residents — with a new focus on younger people whose vulnerability is rising with the temperatures.Nationally, heat-related deaths rose from about 1,000 in 2018 to 1,722 in 2022 and 1,784 so far in 2023, according to a Stateline analysis of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Those totals are likely an underestimate because heat waves make death more likely from other causes as well.The Stateline analysis considered heat-related deaths in CDC epidemiological research, known as Wonder data, where heat is listed as a direct or contributing cause. But deaths caused by heat more indirectly are much higher. A New York City analysis last year, for example, found an average 360 heat-exacerbated deaths in the city annually compared with 10 caused directly by heat.Oregon’s deadly 2021 heat domeClimate change is making the problem more urgent: Heat waves have been steadily rising in number and duration since the 1960s. States are responding with strategies that include public warnings, ice baths and cooling centers for those without air conditioning.As climate change increases the number of extremely hot days, minority groups and people with low incomes will suffer disproportionately, said Samantha Artiga, director of racial equity and health policy at KFF, a national health policy think tank. A recent KFF report on heat-related deaths found the highest death rates were for Native American, Black and Hispanic people.“We know that while climate change and extreme heat pose risks for everyone, those risks are not felt equally,” said Artiga, who co-wrote the report.The summer of 2023 was the hottest on record globally, as was the 12-month period ending Oct. 31. A November report published in the medical journal The Lancet said worldwide heat-related deaths could nearly quintuple by 2050.People 65 or older represent the bulk of deaths — 44% this year — but the youngest also are falling prey to heat. One in 10 heat-related deaths this year were people younger than 35. Among them: a 12-year-old California boy who died after running laps at school in August, a 19-year-old Kansas college football player and a 25-year-old Arizona farmworker who succumbed to the heat in July.“Addressing increasing numbers of heat-related deaths is a likely reality that will require both new policy and awareness,” said Jesse Berman, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota who studies health effects of climate change.Twelve-year-old Yahushua Robinson died on Aug. 29 while running laps during a gym class at his middle school in Lake Elsinore, California. At the time of his death, state legislators were already considering a bill to give school athletic programs more resources to address heat-related injuries.Assemblymember Kate Sanchez, a Republican representing part of Orange County, said she sponsored the bill to ensure that all schools, not just wealthy ones, have tools to prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths, such as ice baths and wet-bulb thermometers that measure temperature and humidity. It was signed into law last month.“This law will help schools, especially in underserved areas, keep our students safe while they’re being healthy and active,” Sanchez said.The 2016 death of Johnny Tolbert, a 12-year-old Georgia football player who collapsed during football practice, inspired the adoption of a South Fulton city ordinance that requires heat-related training for coaches and the placement of 150-gallon containers at parks that host athletic events. The containers must be filled with ice and water between April and September so that heat-stricken athletes can be immersed in them.Georgia state legislators are considering a bill, based on the South Fulton ordinance, that would require every city and county park and recreational facility to have at least one container with a capacity of 150 gallons or more and to keep ice on hand between April and September — or whenever the temperature reaches 93 degrees or higher.“Hopefully we can save the next child’s life and get them to a hospital,” said sponsor state Rep. Lydia Glaize, a Democrat who represents a suburban Atlanta district.Cold-water immersion tubs also are required in Florida under a 2020 state law.In the nation’s hottest and most arid states, heat-related deaths have soared.Arizona had 529 heat-related deaths in 2022 and 710 so far this year — up from about 200 a year in 2018 and 2019. Texas also saw a large increase from about 100 a year in 2018 and 2019, doubling to 203 in 2022 and jumping again to 323 in 2023.States in the Midwest, including Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, had the highest rate of heat-related emergency room visits this past summer, topping out in late August at a rate of 1,516 heat-related visits per 100,000 total emergency-room visits.A historic heat wave in the desert West this year, including a record-shattering 54 days of temperatures of 110 degrees or more in Phoenix, has tested decades of experimentation with cooling centers and other public responses to curb heat deaths.Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, ordered new cooling centers on the Capitol Mall and called for more action to combat heat-related deaths in an August executive order. The state health department is due to present an action plan in December.As a fast-growing state, Arizona has many newcomers and retirees who may not be aware of how debilitating the heat can be, according to Hsin-I Lin Cox, a state epidemiologist. Cities also have large homeless populations that need bus transportation to reach cooling centers.New York also is taking steps to curb heat-related health problems, especially for workers and athletes.Legislation introduced this year would create heat thresholds that would trigger protections for delivery workers. It’s still in committee.Many delivery trucks do not have air-conditioned cabs. Paramedics had to cover a New York UPS driver in ice packs and take him to the hospital in July 2022 after he nearly collapsed at the end of his Long Island route. A UPS driver died in Texas this summer after collapsing in the heat.“It seems like it’s getting hotter here every year and we don’t want to wait until there’s a tragedy,” said New York Assemblymember Catalina Cruz, a Democrat representing Queens who sponsored the legislation.Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization focused on state policy.©2023 States Newsroom. Visit at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Oil and gas producers pledge to cut methane emissions at UN climate talks

A group of 50 major oil and gas companies signed a pledge to cut methane emissions during the Dubai COP28 climate summit on Saturday, in a move that some climate activists are downplaying as a “smokescreen.” The coalition of oil producers includes the largest state-owned operations, including Saudi Aramco, alongside major American companies like ExxonMobil....

A group of 50 major oil and gas companies signed a pledge to cut methane emissions during the Dubai COP28 climate summit on Saturday, in a move that some climate activists are downplaying as a “smokescreen.” The coalition of oil producers includes the largest state-owned operations, including Saudi Aramco, alongside major American companies like ExxonMobil. The agreement pledges that the companies will cut their greenhouse gas emission to net-zero by 2050, and cut methane emissions to near-zero level by 2030. Climate scientists have cited methane as one of the most immediate climate dangers. "If we want to accelerate progress across the climate agenda, we must bring everyone in to be accountable and responsible for climate action," COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber said. "We must all focus on reducing emissions and apply a positive can-do vision to drive climate action and get everyone to take action. We need a clear action plan, and I am determined to deliver one." Jaber is also the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, bringing the event scrutiny. Reports before the summit began alleged that Jaber and UAE interests sought to use the venue to strike backroom oil production deals, which he denied. The 50 oil and gas giants account for about 40 percent of global oil production, the UAE said. Major oil interests in Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Qatar and China did not sign on to the agreement. Specifically, the deal agrees to reduce methane emissions to 0.2 percent of oil and natural gas production by 2030, and to end routine emissions flaring.The United Nations, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and International Energy Agency, will be tracking the progress, a first for any similar agreement. EDF President Fred Krupp called the 0.2 percent target “ambitious but absolutely achievable,” adding that the deal “could reduce methane emissions by each company signing by as much as 80 to 90 percent.” “This will be the single most impactful day I’ve seen at any COP in 30 years in terms of slowing the rate of warming,” he said in a statement. “The industry must do more than methane reductions; business as usual will not meet this moment.” Methane has been a frequent target of climate activists in recent years, as it is one of the most potent greenhouses gases for climate change. The gas is about 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide and is responsible for about 25 percent of global warming. The Biden administration announced new Environmental Protection Agency rules to limit methane emissions earlier Saturday, alongside the COP28 deal.

At UN Climate Talks, Oil Companies Pledge to Combat Methane; Environmentalists Call It 'Smokescreen'

Fifty oil companies representing nearly half of global production have pledged to reach near-zero methane emissions and end routine flaring in their operations by 2030, the president of this year’s U_N_ climate talks said Saturday, a move that environmental groups called a “smokescreen.”

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Fifty oil companies representing nearly half of global production have pledged to reach near-zero methane emissions and end routine flaring in their operations by 2030, the president of this year's United Nations climate talks said Saturday, a move that environmental groups called a “smokescreen."The announcement by Sultan al-Jaber, president of the climate summit known as COP28 and head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., comes as he and others have insisted his background would allow him to bring oil companies to the negotiating table. Al-Jaber has maintained that having the industry's buy-in is crucial to drastically slashing the world’s greenhouse emissions by nearly half in seven years to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with pre-industrial times.The pledge included major national oil companies such as Saudi Aramco, Brazil's Petrobras and Sonangol, from Angola, and multi-nationals like Shell, TotalEnergies and BP.“The world does not work without energy,” said al-Jaber. “Yet the world will break down if we do not fix energies we use today, mitigate their emissions at a gigaton scale, and rapidly transition to zero carbon alternatives.”Methane can be released at several points along the operation of an oil and gas company, from fracking to when natural gas is produced, transported or stored. Over a shorter period, it’s more than 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas most responsible for climate change.For months leading up to COP28, there has been talk that one of the biggest outcomes could be on methane. Not only do methane leaks, along with flaring, which is burning of excess methane, and venting of the gas all contribute to climate change, but these problems can largely solved with current technologies and changes to operations. Indeed, oil and gas companies could have taken such measures years ago but largely have not, instead focusing more on expanding production than focusing on the byproduct of it. In that way, the methane deal represented a potentially significant contribution to combatting climate change that largely maintained the status quo for the oil and gas industry. Environmental groups were quick to criticize it. The pledge is a “smokescreen to hide the reality that we need to phase out oil, gas and coal,” said a letter signed by more than 300 civil society groups. Marcelo Mena, CEO of Global Methane Hub, rejected that the notion that having near-zero methane emission commitments was a way to delay a phase out of fossil fuels.“We wouldn’t let oil companies leak into the ocean until phase out, so why would we let them leak out methane to super charge climate change?” said Mena, a former environment minister in Chile. Still, Mena said that self-reporting didn't go far enough to push oil and gas companies to make changes. Instead, he said putting a price on pollution, or companies finding themselves shut out of markets that require high standards with leaks, would force change. High regulations are beginning to happen. Earlier this year, European Union negotiators reached a deal to reduce methane emissions from the energy industry across the 27-member bloc. The agreement bans routine venting and flaring, and mandates strict reporting. By 2027, it will expand those norms to oil and gas exporters outside the bloc. Saturday's announcement did not address the oil and natural gas being burned off by the end users, whether motorists in their cars or by plants powering cities. That burning off creates the greenhouse gases fueling climate change.The Oil and Gas Decarbonization Charter is backed by both the United Arab Emirates and neighboring Saudi Arabia, two OPEC heavyweights. Saudi Arabia’s vast oil resources, located close to the surface of its desert expanse, makes it one of the world’s least expensive places to produce crude. Both Abu Dhabi’s ADNOC and Saudi Aramco, the world’s third-most-valuable company, have signed onto the pledge.Separately, organizers said 110 countries have signed onto a pledge to triple the world’s installed renewable energy capacity by 2030, something pledged in September by leaders of the so-called Group of 20. Their countries emit 80% of all planet-warming gases.Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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