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.

State Response Under Changing Federal Methane Regulations


Under the new administration, some newly implemented federal regulations concerning oil and gas site emissions may end up being reversed.  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has approved the final Methane and Waste Prevention Rule, which set stricter standards to reduce methane emissions and wasted gas on public and Indian tribal lands, and was set to take effect January 2017.  One of the first acts of the 114th Congress may be to reverse this legislation through the use of the Congressional Review Act, which allows congress to take back any executive action within the past 60 legislative work days if the action imposes exorbitant costs, exceeds agency authority, or is redundant.

Many states are choosing not to follow the lead of the federal government,  but are instead continuing to strengthen their emissions laws.  Colorado and Ohio have existing legislation concerning methane emissions that are more strict than any proposed or implemented government rules.  This week, more states are following the examples set by Colorado and Ohio, and are introducing legislation to help curb emissions.  Lawmakers in California and Pennsylvania have introduced legislation requiring stricter emissions standards for gas and oil sites.  

The proposed California regulations, Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standards for Crude Oil and Natural Gas Facilities, would be the strictest in the country, more strict than the proposed BLM rule. The California legislature would apply to all oil and gas sites, on shore and off, on private, state, and federal lands, excluding only tribal lands.  The law also requires quarterly inspections and leak detection and repair.

Pennsylvania has started a 45-day public comment period for its new rules as well.  The state is the second largest producer of natural gas in the country, and the new rules are aimed at reducing methane pollution and other pollutants at well sites and compressor stations associated with natural gas drilling and transportation. The comment period runs through March 2017, and is for two general permits, and proposed revisions to an existing air-quality permit exemption. The revised permit would establish a requirement to use best-available technology regarding air emission limits, source testing, leak detection and repair, recordkeeping and reporting requirements.  Clearly, states are continuing to make reducing emissions a priority, no matter what the federal government’s priorities are.

Hannah Leis

Environmental Scientist








Hannah Leis

Hannah Leis is a senior at Tulane University and will be graduating in May 2017 with a double major in Economics and Environmental Studies. During Fall 2015, Ms. Leis studied Sustainable Development in Copenhagen, Denmark.  While in the program, she developed a passion for sustainability based on the unique Copenhagen model.  Ms. Leis has held a number of environmentally-focused internships and jobs throughout the New Orleans area.  Ms. Leis has extensive experience working with Stata, disentangling federal environmental regulations, and researching various environmental issues. Ms. Leis is excited to launch her career in the environmental or sustainable development fields.  Her hobbies include SCUBA diving and exploring her adopted home of New Orleans.