Gaseous Gambit: The EPA’s Methane Mission Meets State Resistance

ADDIEL PEREZ—The Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) recently enacted a groundbreaking methane emissions regulation, published on March 8th, 2024. This swiftly became a focal point of legal contention. Texas and other states have launched a lawsuit challenging the EPA’s authority to implement such stringent measures. This development spotlights the ongoing battle between federal environmental initiatives and state autonomy. It underscores the significance of methane as a potent greenhouse gas and its implications for public health and climate change.

Methane, a greenhouse gas, can leak undetected from drilling sites, pipelines, and oil and gas equipment. It has a higher warming potential than carbon dioxide but breaks down faster in the atmosphere. Thus, controlling methane emissions can quickly impact climate change mitigation.

The EPA’s regulation aims to significantly reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by revising new source performance standards for methane and volatile organic compounds (“VOCs”) pursuant to the EPA’s mandate under section 111(b) of the Clean Air Act. It establishes emissions guidelines for states to limit methane from existing sources, targeting a reduction of 58 million short tons of methane, 16 million short tons of VOCs, and 590 thousand short tons of hazardous air pollutants between 2024 and 2038. The new rules ban routine flaring, require oil companies to monitor for leaks from well sites and compressor stations, and establish a program to use third-party remote sensing to detect significant methane releases from so-called “super emitters.”

According to the EPA, the anticipated emissions reductions from these requirements will substantially decrease climate and public health harms, including respiratory illness and death. The anticipated benefits include preventing 97,000 asthma symptom cases, 35,000 lost school days annually, and hundreds of premature deaths. This translates into $7 billion in ozone health benefits and $110 billion in climate benefits.

Texas’s lawsuit against the EPA’s rule is a crucial test of the agency’s regulatory reach, particularly following the Supreme Court’s West Virginia v. EPA decision invalidating an Obama-era EPA rule on power plant emissions. This Supreme Court precedent emphasized the necessity for explicit congressional authorization for significant regulatory actions with broad economic impacts. The lawsuit raises important questions about the extent of the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act and the implications of the Major Questions Doctrine, which limits agencies’ powers to enact major regulatory changes without explicit congressional approval.

The Major Questions Doctrine provides that when a federal agency decides on matters of vast economic and political significance, clear congressional authorization is required for the agency to act. This doctrine is based on the premise that Congress, not administrative agencies, should make major policy decisions affecting the economy or significant aspects of American life. Under the Major Questions Doctrine, a court reviewing an agency’s action may require more explicit and clear congressional approval for the agency’s decision if it falls under the “major question” category. This principle acts as a check on administrative agencies’ power by requiring certain pivotal decisions to be clearly rooted in the statutory authority granted by Congress.

The new methane rule represents a pivotal moment in U.S. environmental policy, where the urgent need for climate action must be balanced against the challenges of regulatory authority and state opposition. Methane persists in the atmosphere for less time than carbon dioxide but is about eighty times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere. The oil and gas sector is the largest industrial source of methane emissions in the United States. Recent data from the International Energy Agency revealed that top methane-emitting countries released about 120 million metric tons of methane in 2023, a slight increase from 2022. The U.S. led in oil and gas methane emissions.

A multistate coalition of Attorney Generals filed a motion to intervene in support of the EPA, emphasizing that the EPA is establishing the first nationwide guideline for states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing sources of methane. Until now, the EPA deferred to state agencies to set pollution standards for existing sources of methane emissions. The Major Questions Doctrine is being raised here because the EPA has never regulated existing infrastructure in this way. The lawsuit’s outcome could have far-reaching implications, not only for the Methane Rule but also for understanding the direction the U.S. Supreme Court is heading, further shaping the Major Questions Doctrine.