Understanding Environmental Policy: Changing Issues with NSPS Regulations

The desire to achieve a specific outcome or goal when public health, environment, and economic growth issues collide make environmental policy and regulations a tricky business. The OTA’s  Environmental Policy Tools User Guide describes the ideal environmental policy as one that is: 1) cost effective and fair;  2) places the least amount of demand on government;  3) assures the public that goals will be met; 4) addresses pollution potential;  5) ensures environmental equity and justice, 6) prioritizes adaptability; and 7) encourages technological innovation and diffusion. Environmental policies incorporate a system of tools such as legislation, rules and regulations, courses of action, subsidies etc. For a particular policy tool to meet all of the criteria of an ideal policy is difficult, however, it is crucial for some of, if not all, evaluations/guidelines to be considered when narrowing down/deciding on a particular course of action. Additionally, any time there is a proposal to add, remove, or change a rule or regulation, there must be a public notice and comment period. This is an integral component of the rule-making process, because it opens a dialogue between all stakeholders from the public to the industry.

Laws (or acts) such as the Clean Air Act (CAA) or the Clean Water Act, are created by the legislative branch at the federal level (the U.S. Congress) and grant regulatory agencies within the executive branch (i.e. the EPA) the authority to develop and enforce rules and regulations that can carry out the law, as well as provide clear requirements to the industry in regards to that specific law. For example, under CAA Section 202 the endangerment finding states that: 1) green house gasses (GHGs) currently in the atmosphere potentially endanger public health and welfare and 2) new motor vehicle emissions cause or contribute to that pollution. Due to these findings the EPA has a duty to put in place emission standards for new motor vehicles, which were announced in 2009 by former President Obama (EPA, “Endangerment and Cause or Contribute Findings for Greenhouse Gases Under Section 202(a) of the Clean Air Act; Final Rule,” 74 Federal Register 66496, December 15, 2009). Amongst other benefits to the environment, the new emission standards help to encourage technological advancement in the automotive industry.

The endangerment findings also apply to stationary sources of air pollution (under Section 111) such as CO2 emissions from new coal fired power plants as well as methane and VOC (volatile organic compound) emissions from the oil and gas industry. As of May 12, 2016 the EPA updated the New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) permitting rules that aimed to curb methane emissions, volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), and other toxic air pollutants (i.e. benzene). This rule was finalized on June 3, 2016 and included changes made based on information gathered during the public comment period such as the fixed schedule monitoring of leaks instead of one that varies with performance, twice a year monitoring for well sites, quarterly leak monitoring for compressor stations, use of alternative approaches to finding leaks, and the opportunity to use emerging and innovative technologies to monitor the leaks.

Trump’s ascension to the oval office with his former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt (who resigned July 5, 2018) have set out to change several Obama-era rules and regulations as well as to shift the focus from curbing GHGs and toxic air pollutants to relaxing restrictions and minimizing environmental red tape for industry. Proposals were set in motion on March 31, 2017 with Trump’s Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth. One such rule that is being battled over is an aspect of 2016 NSPS regarding fugitive emissions from oil and natural gas industry. While under Pruitt’s administrative command in June of 2017, the EPA issued a 90-day stay in an attempt to halt certain aspects of the 2016 NSPS such as requiring oil and gas facilities to find and repair leaks of methane from new facilities such as wells, compressor stations, and tanks. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacated the EPA’s 90-day stay in July of 2017. In March 12, 2018 the EPA finalized an amendment to the rule allowing leaks to go un-repaired during unscheduled or emergency events. This was followed by yet another NSPS amendment that was proposed on September 11, 2018 under the new EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, which could potentially weaken standards associated with pollution limits further (the details of which can be found here. The public comment notice period has shed light on a rift in the industry with some industry stakeholders who are supportive of the continued regulation of methane emissions and some who are in support of regulatory rollback. Amongst those who want continued methane regulation are ExxonMobil and Shell. The continued methane regulation for NSPS is step in the right direction because it advances the industry in many ways (i.e. saving money from reducing lost product or creating an innovative market for environmental companies) while also minimizing pollution which benefits the public, the environment, the government and the company in the long run.

U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Environmental Policy Tools: A User’s Guide, OTA-ENV-634 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, September 1995)

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Oil and Natural Gas Sector: Emission Standards for New, Reconstructed, and Modified Sources; Final Rule,” 81 Federal Register 35824, June 3, 2016.






Isobel Pribil

Isobel Pribil is a graduate of Louisiana State University where she received a Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry with Minors in Chemistry and Disaster Science Management and a Masters of Science in Environmental Science with a Minor in Wetland Science Management. Her interest in environmental toxicology and her passion for the outdoors lead her to pursue Environmental Science with a primary area of focus in toxicology and biophysical interactions within the environment. Her thesis research focused on the presence and toxicological effect of secondary fungal metabolites in animal feed and food. She is experienced and trained in using ArcGIS as well as being versed in other program formats that utilize analytical methods such as SPSS and R.

The EPA and the Clean Air Act: What does our progress look like?


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded in 1970 in response to visibly high levels of pollution throughout the country and an accumulation of environmental and public health disasters. If the choking smog in Los Angeles and burning rivers in Ohio weren’t enough, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which brought to the attention of the American people the devastating impact of pesticides on birds’ reproductive systems, can be credited with inspiring Americans to support the conservation movement and to demand that the federal government take charge to protect the environment. Federal action finally came in 1969 in the form of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was signed by President Nixon and laid the foundation for the EPA as we know it today.

The EPA’s first major action as an official government agency was the signing of the Clean Air Act (CAA) in 1970, which aimed to protect public health and regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants. Between 1970 and 2015, national emissions of the six common pollutants addressed by the CAA- particulates, ozone, lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide- dropped by an average of 70%, resulting in improved air quality and less instances of pollution related ailments and deaths. For example, in 1990 alone, pollution reductions under the CAA prevented 205,000 early deaths. In addition to enhanced national health, improved air quality has also boosted crop and tinder yields worth an estimated $5.5 billion.

The economy has not only benefited from improved air quality alone. The benefits of EPA regulations have been estimated to exceed the costs of compliance with those regulations by about 30 times. Even the lowest estimates show that the benefits of regulations compared to the costs of compliance are still 3 to 1. CAA regulations have also fueled America to be a world leader in energy and technology innovation, reducing energy production costs as well as automobile volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions. The reduction in VOCs is particularly impressive considering vehicles are driving more miles annually than ever before. Moreover, less VOC emissions are directly correlated with the reduction in ozone levels, which is responsible for smog that can cause acute respiratory issues and reduce quality of life.

In addition to domestic environmental issues, the EPA also addresses global problems by enforcing international environmental regulations within the United States. For example, in 1987 the global community addressed the issue of the hole in the ozone layer by way of the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty signed by 197 nations, including the US, to repair the hole. The EPA has been acting as the authoritative body responsible for ensuring that the United States does its part in the global effort to repair the ozone hole. The regulations enforced by the EPA curb unnecessary stratospheric ozone-depleting substances, which protect Americans and people worldwide from skin cancer and eye cataracts.

The EPA was established after the American people realized a need for environmental protection and regulation. It was founded on the basis of ensuring a higher quality of life for the country, and the progress the EPA has made through its largest and most historic piece of legislation, the CAA, has demonstrated that the EPA has achieved that initial goal and more. Through the CAA the EPA has simultaneously improved air quality, improved quality of life, boosted the economy, enhanced technological innovation, and represented the US on a global stage in the ongoing challenge of environmental protection. The progress that has been made in the nearly 50 years that the EPA and CAA have existed is nothing short of a success.

Jake Greif

Environmental Scientist







Jake Greif

Jake Greif is a senior at Tulane University majoring in Environmental Earth Science, with a minor in International Development. As an Environmental Earth Science major set to receive his degree in May 2017, Mr. Greif has gained a good understanding of the systems that make Earth uniquely habitable, how our actions affect those systems, and how we can modify our actions to avoid harming the planet. A Dallas native, Mr. Greif has enjoyed his time in New Orleans and has held several internships to further his understanding of local environmental issues. Mr. Greif is excited to continue exploring his interests of hydrology and water management after receiving his degree.