Former Exxon Employee Urges EPA to Strengthen Methane Leak Detection and Repair Standards, Protect Public Health

Recently I testified before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, along with hundreds of other advocates, experts and community leaders across the country, to urge the agency to cut methane pollution from oil and gas production 65 percent by 2025.

I shared stories from my hometown — Port Arthur, Texas, which sits at the nexus of climate change and industrial expansion in America. Our city has experienced five major hurricanes in the last 15 years, as well as numerous floods, storm surges and extreme weather events induced by hydrocarbon fueled climate change. We are also home to three natural gas and numerous petrochemical plants and facilities. I spent 38 years working as a process operator at the ExxonMobil Beaumont refinery that fueled the climate crisis through its pollution.

During my time working for Big Oil, I learned the importance of strong federal oversight and how its absence largely affects those on the production and community side of oil and gas development. When I was working in the oil and gas industry, my company did not have adequate policies to prevent methane leaks or minimize emissions from extraction and production equipment. I witnessed firsthand what it was doing to our community.

Port Arthur is home to two “gross emitters” that are two of the main reasons our air is dirtier than Clean Air Act standards dictate: OxBow Calcining and Valero. In 2010, Port Arthur was designated as an environmental justice showcase community by the EPA after finding such high levels of air pollution and other contamination. We have twice the state and national averages for cancer, lung, heart and kidney disease.

Having spent nearly four decades working for ExxonMobil, one of the largest petrochemical companies in the world, I understand the issues with monitoring leaks and the urgent need for better detection systems and federal safeguards to reduce emissions from extraction and production equipment — especially for methane, a potent greenhouse gas which warms the planet 86 times more than carbon dioxide pollution over 20 years and accounts for a quarter of today’s global warming.

The problem of methane pollution is growing — each year, the oil and gas industry releases 16 million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere. Toxic volatile organic compounds, like benzene — a carcinogen, or release along with it. Any effort to reduce emissions from production sources like oil and gas wells would go far to reduce increased levels of released greenhouse gases and associated toxics, and improve air quality in our communities.

For starters, the EPA should require all companies to institute leak detection and repair, and surveillance, along with strict enforcement measures to curb these impacts. It is also essential that properly trained, onsite operators or equipment technicians check equipment in hydrocarbon service with a high degree of frequency — twice daily, at a minimum. And where possible, technicians and designated repair contractors should enact repairs upon discovery or (depending on the technology) within three days of discovery of the leak. Then after repair, they should recheck the repair and verify its status by cataloging and tracking the affected equipment for recordkeeping.

Such improvement would minimize health threats to communities surrounding these refineries, and protect those who work in them. Stronger rules will help mitigate unregulated methane emissions, which have been linked to increased risk of cancer or other serious health impacts, including damage to the immune, neurological, reproductive, developmental and respiratory systems.

I respectfully urge the EPA to put in place stronger methane pollution rules to cut methane from oil and gas development 65 percent below 2012 levels in the next five years. It is the EPA’s responsibility to protect the climate and fenceline communities by implementing leak detection and repair minimum standards, which will minimize methane leaks, reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions, slow climate change and improve air quality.


John Beard is the founder, Chairman and CEO of the Port Arthur Community Action Network.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult