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Map Shows How Your Community Could Be Affected By Weakened Methane Emission Rules

Gabriel C. Pérez
Gas is flared at an oil well in West Texas.

When the Trump administration announced plans to roll back Obama-era rules limiting methane emissions from oil and gas operations, even some in industry cried foul. Many saw the regulations as a modest attempt to curb Earth-heating emissions.

Now, environmentalists are highlighting another cost of the proposed rule-change: the impact it will have on the air quality of communities living near oil and gas wells.

The methane mapping tool, released by the Environmental Defense Fund, purports to show the location of every active oil and gas well in the country. It allows users to zoom down and view estimates of how much methane, volatile organic compounds (VOC) and hazardous air pollutants could be released by the wells under current rules and under the proposed rollback.

Credit Environmental Defense Fund

These pollutants can damage the central nervous system and cause breathing problems, cancer and birth defects, among other things.

The EDF map also shows demographic information about those who would be most affected.

“I think one of the things that’s especially striking in Texas is just how many people live within close proximately of oil and gas wells,” Rosalie Winn, a lawyer with the EDF, said. “We found that, all together, 2.5 million people in Texas live within a half a mile of an active oil and gas well.”

Credit Environmental Defense Fund
Oil and gas pollution in Texas

When it announced the rollback last fall, Trump's Environmental Protection Agency said the change would save industry nearly $20 million annually. The relatively meager savings for a multitrillion-dollar industry made some wonder why the agency bothered to change the rules at all.

Winn said a close reading of the proposal could provide an answer. According to her, language included in the proposal would preempt future regulation of hundreds of thousands of existing oil and gas wells.

The “EPA acknowledges in this proposal that that would essentially remove the legal predicate forever regulating any air pollution” from those wells, she said.

The Environmental Defense Fund used that analysis to make forecasts about the long-term impact on air quality.

“For example, in Travis County, if the Trump administration is successful in preventing any future regulation of existing sources, VOC emissions over the next decade will spike,” Winn said.  

To justify the rollback, the EPA said the methane rules were often redundant and that existing pollution regulations assured suitable air quality. Winn said the EDF mapping tool shows the methane rule actually reduces other categories of emissions.

You can find the interactive map here

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Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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