Bad Data and Deception: The American Petroleum Institute Pivots on Methane
By: Andy Rowell and Lorne Stockman
A detailed analysis by Oil Change International of the public statements and commitments by the American Petroleum Institute (API) around methane emissions and climate change has uncovered a decade of spurious data, deceptive messaging, and disingenuous public positioning by the big oil spin doctors.
- API Messaging During the Obama Administration (2011-2016)
- API Messaging During the Trump Administration (2017-2020)
- API Messaging During the Biden Administration (2021)
- Major Peer-Reviewed Studies Show Methane from Oil and Gas is Rising
Over the last decade, the API has shifted from being vehemently anti-Obama to passionately pro-Trump, before swiveling 180-degrees to demand a seat at Joe Biden’s climate change policy table.
Specifically, it has apparently abandoned more than a decade of opposition to the regulation of the climate super-pollutant methane, to suddenly being all about it. The primary component of fossil gas, methane is over 80 times worse for the climate in the near-term, and is vented and leaked all along the oil and gas supply chain. But whether the API’s pivot on methane regulation is a result of European customers backing out of LNG contracts citing the U.S. industry’s copious methane leaks, or because of the new Biden administration, this about-face is more akin to smoke and mirrors than a genuine change of policy position.
API’s commitments are deliberately vague. There are no stated targets, such as the 65% reduction by 2025 that environmental advocates are now calling for. The API states that it now stands for “cost-effective policies and direct regulation that achieve methane emission reductions from new and existing sources across the supply chain.”
However, API has so far failed to support a congressional resolution to reinstate methane regulations rolled back by President Trump. And while the API now wants to be a central pillar of any national climate conversation, the positions it continues to hold; drilling for more dirty fracked gas, building more pipelines, including the controversial KXL, exporting more gas, drilling in the Arctic Refuge, and further drilling on public lands, are all incompatible with the managed decline and just transition that real climate action requires.
Despite this, since the Biden Administration took office, there has been an outpouring of oil industry schmoozing and serenading of the fledgling Administration, with the API showering Biden with empty promises like confetti. Central to the schmooze has been the API’s desire to gain influence at Biden’s policy table.
To this end, API is trying to publicly show it’s finally serious about climate change. On March 25, 2021, API posted its new Climate Action Framework, which the oil lobbyists called “much more than a list of policies and actions to address the risks of climate change” but “a values statement, the natural gas and oil industry’s commitment to lead on the twin necessities of cleaner energy and lower greenhouse gas emissions.” The announcement came just weeks after the API signaled its support for a carbon price strategy to reduce emissions.
The message was surprising and simple: in the API’s view, climate action and oil and gas drilling are not mutually exclusive. But that’s not how it’s always been. For years, the API has danced to a different tune.
While “direct regulation of methane from new and existing sources” is a key part of its new action plan, the API has been instrumental in preventing methane regulation during a period in which the industry’s booming production has produced more of the climate super-pollutant than ever before. And despite the API’s spin, methane emissions have gone up, not down.
Here we list some of the highlights of a decade of API obstruction over methane and greenhouse gas emissions during the Obama years, sharply followed by swooning over Trump’s pro-fossil fuel agenda, before flipping to be pro-methane regulation under Biden.
When it launched its new Climate Action Framework plan, the API hyped it as “the opportunity of our time”. Ironically, as our timeline shows, every new President brings new “opportunity” for the industry. Four years previously, API’s Jack Gerard, had lauded President Trump’s victory as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” through a “21st American energy renaissance.”
Four years later, with Trump gone, the spin campaign to embed the oil industry into any Biden climate action is crucial. And here is where we get to the crunch. The industry still wants its energy renaissance, it still wants to carry on drilling, just like before in the good old days of Trump.
But to do that, the API has to convince politicians that it can reduce methane and drill for more oil and gas at the same time. But the trouble is, despite the API’s claims, when drilling increases, so do emissions.
Bursting API’s Methane Bubble
Five days after the API launched its Climate Action Framework, the Financial Times reported that:
“Methane pollution from the largest oilfield in the US. has soared back to pre-pandemic levels as a recovery in drilling undermines industry pledges to crack down on emissions of the potent greenhouse gas.”
The data the Financial Times was quoting is independent peer-reviewed science published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. This is simply the latest of dozens of studies that have indicated that API’s figures on methane are about as credible as Donald Trump’s election fraud claims.
API Claims What Went Up Went Down
The API uses U.S. government data to support its claims about the level of U.S. oil and gas industry methane emissions. It obsessively repeats a misleading comparison of emissions versus production in America’s key production basins. But as methane levels in the atmosphere soar to all time records, the truth is far more complicated than the API’s simplistic claims.
Numerous independent peer-reviewed studies have found that the U.S. government consistently underreports oil and gas methane emissions, and that field measurements show much higher levels than the limited industry self-reported data that EPA collects. A major synthesis of studies involving dozens of institutions concluded in 2018 that U.S. oil and gas methane emissions were 60% higher than EPA estimates in 2015.
In 2019, a different study found methane levels above oil and gas production zones in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas correlated to around double the EPA estimates. Flyover studies by the state of New Mexico show an upward trend in methane leaks in key oil and gas fields. These are just a few of many examples. Yet API persists in taking this flawed government data and divides it by soaring gas production, to claim that methane emissions rates have declined as much as 70% since 2011. This dangerously misrepresents reality.
Even if we take the government data at face value, a different story emerges when we look at what really matters to whether the industry has its foot on or off of the climate change pedal; total emissions of methane. The fact is methane emissions from the oil and gas sector have been rising since 2016. In 2019, emissions were more than 5% up in the government data.
The reality is likely a lot worse. While the U.S. EPA data has the sector’s methane emissions at nearly 7.9 million metric tons in 2019, the International Energy Agency puts them 50% higher at nearly 12 million tons in 2020, a figure it says is down around 10% from 2019 levels due to lower production. And just this week, Environmental Defense Fund, which has led a nationwide effort to expose the real level of oil and gas industry methane leaks, estimates the industry’s methane emissions at more than double the EPA’s inventory.
The fact is, as one of the latest peer-reviewed studies clearly shows, methane emissions only go down when production goes down. And that is exactly what needs to happen if we are to maintain a safe climate.
Ten Years of API Obstruction on Methane Regulation:
- 2011 – 2016: The Obama Administration (link to top of page)
- Apr. 2011: Then API President and CEO Jack Gerard applauded members of Congress who voted to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases.
- Sept. 2013: On its website, API said new research suggests “existing regulation is working and that an additional regulatory layer isn’t needed”.
- Sept. 2014: The API criticized environmental groups demanding more regulation on methane emissions from oil and natural gas production, dismissing it as the “new methane alarm”, which was unwarranted as emissions were declining.
- Nov. 2014: The API argued methane emissions were falling so fast that this casted “doubt on the need for a new federal regulatory layer”.
- Jan. 2015: API President and CEO Jack Gerard warned against further regulations arguing “Another layer of burdensome requirements could actually slow down industry progress to reduce methane emissions.”
- Jan. 2015: The API criticized the Obama Administration’s plan to impose new regulations on methane emissions from oil and natural gas operations, warning the White House “was focusing on a relatively small piece of the big picture.”
- Apr. 2015: An article on the API website said: “For months we’ve argued that new federal regulation targeting methane emissions from energy development is unnecessary and could undermine the success industry initiatives already are achieving”. It quoted Howard Feldman, API’s senior director of regulatory and scientific affairs, saying: “We sell methane – that is natural gas … We don’t need regulation to tell us to do that because we are incentivized to do that.”
- Mar. 2016: The API accused the Obama administration of being “more concerned about extreme agendas than the needs of American consumers” for wanting to regulate methane emissions from existing oil and gas sources. As part of the initiative, Obama and Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau had announced they were committed to reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sectors by at least 40 percent over the next decade. The API responded by saying Obama and Trudeau were “catering to environmental extremists at the expense of American consumers.”
- Aug. 2016: The API outlined why it has joined a legal challenge against the EPA for exceeding its regulatory powers by wanting to regulate methane. The article quoted West Virginia State Attorney General, Patrick Morrissey, saying the EPA’s move was “yet another example of unlawful federal overreach.
2017-2020: The Trump Administration (link to top of page)
- Jan. 2017: API’s Jack Gerard Delivered the organization’s State of American Energy Address demanding that the new Trump Administration “reexamine the regulatory onslaught of the last few years that has proposed or imposed some 145 regulations and other executive actions on our industry.”
- Jan. 2017: Jack Gerard was quoted as being “pumped about industry prospects under Trump, saying “we have an opportunity to change the national conversation when it comes to energy policy,”
- Jan. 2017: The API Website demanded a “sea-change” in the way Washington approached “American oil and natural gas abundance … We need policies that embrace and harness America’s energy renaissance instead of trying to restrain it. We need an approach to regulation that manages safe and responsible energy development instead of smothering it in short-sighted, often unnecessary restrictions and red tape.”
- Apr. 2017: API’s Jack Gerard lauded President Trump’s first 100 days saying he was heartened by the President’s actions, including removing “duplicative regulations that hinder energy production without achieving the desired environmental, economic or consumer benefit.”
- Jul. 2020: The API veiled a threat to Joe Biden before he launched his climate plan: “We stand at a crossroads for the nation’s energy future, and the choices policymakers make in 2020 and beyond will determine whether we build on America’s energy progress or shift to foreign energy sources with lower environmental standards.”
- Aug. 2020: The Trump Administration finalized regulations aimed at rolling back the Obama Administration’s 2016 New Source Performance Standards controlling methane emissions from new and modified sources in the oil and gas industry, known as the “modified methane rule” giving the industry a “free pass” at polluting the atmosphere.
- Aug. 2020: The API announced it was in favor of EPA’s “modified methane rule,” which it said was “good for the U.S” and argued it would “keep reducing emissions while innovating for the future; the rule is consistent with the federal Clean Air Act and effective state regulation is recognized.”
- Dec. 2020: API Website: The API supported EPA’s new benefit-cost rule as it “provides the basis for rational examination of future regulation under the Clean Air Act – and specifically, whether the proposal’s intended benefits justify the societal cost.”
2021: The Biden Administration (link to top of page)
- Jan. 2021: API’s new President, Mike Sommers, said the API “Stands Ready to Work with the Biden Administration on Methane Regulation” arguing “we believe that direct regulation of methane from new and existing sources is key to public confidence in our industry’s performance as we engage with the new administration.”
- Mar. 2021: API Website: Under the headline “The Common Ground of Emissions Reduction,” the API argued “our industry is ready to work” with the Biden administration “for a better economy, cleaner environment and progress toward climate goals.”
- Mar. 2021: API’s New Climate Action Framework was published, with the API saying it “supports the direct regulation of methane from new and existing sources.”
Major Peer-Reviewed Studies Show Methane from Oil and Gas is Rising:
- Dec. 2013: Scientists from Harvard and University of California found U.S. methane emissions to be 50% higher than EPA estimates. Study, Article
- Jan. 2018: NASA released results from a study of atmospheric methane that found that fossil fuel production is responsible for around 60% of the rise in global methane emissions since 2006. Article
- Jun. 2018: A synthesis of fresh data and previously published peer-reviewed studies from 140 researchers in 40 institutions found that U.S. oil and gas methane emissions in 2015 about 60% higher than EPA estimates at 13 million tons per year and around 2.3% of gross U.S. gas production. Study, Article
- Apr. 2019: A study by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that methane emissions from U.S. oil and gas grew 3.4% a year from 2006 to 2015, while total U.S. methane emissions appeared to be flat. Study, Article
- Oct. 2019: Scientists at Penn State and NASA concluded that methane leaking from oil and gas operations in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana in 2017 was around double EPA estimates. Study, Article
- Feb. 2020: A study published in Nature finds that the contribution of the oil and gas sector to rising methane levels in the atmosphere is greater than previously thought. Study, Article.
- Apr. 2020: Harvard scientists found methane emissions in the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico, the world’s most prolific oil and gas basin, were twice as high as previous estimates at around 3.7% of gross gas production. Study, Article
- Jul. 2020: NASA data showed global methane rising to record levels and U.S. oil and gas production to be a leading contributor. Study, Article
- Dec. 2020: Scientists found that methane emissions in the Permian Basin have returned to pre-pandemic levels despite industry pledges to address the issue. Study, Article
- Jan. 2021: The International Energy Agency publishes its Global Methane Tracker data estimating U.S. oil and gas sector emissions at 11.79 million metric tons, or 16.4% of the global total in 2020. While not publishing data from previous years, the IEA states emissions were around 10% down on 2019 globally due to lower oil and gas production as a result of the COVID pandemic. This figure is nearly 50% higher than the EPA’s estimates for 2019.
- Apr. 2021: Environmental Defense Fund publish figures for U.S. oil and gas methane emissions that are double the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory. PDF