A gas flare burns past a pump jack in the Permian Basin area of Loving County, Texas, U.S., in 2018. Angus Mordant/Bloomberg file

A Biden administration plan to empower private citizens to police oil wells and pipelines for methane leaks is being blasted by industry leaders who say it sets a dangerous precedent.

Under the Super-Emitter Response Program proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, individuals who have agency-approved expertise and equipment would be authorized to monitor oil industry operations for emissions of the potent greenhouse gas and notify companies of any high-volume leaks. Operators would have five days to analyze any credible third-party methane reports and 10 days to fix most leaks.

Environmental activists have cheered the proposal, saying it boosts the incentive for oil and gas companies to stifle methane leaks. But the oil industry’s main lobbying body lashed out against it, saying it raises a raft of legal, logistical, commercial and safety risks, in addition to potentially setting a precedent of tapping private citizens to do the government’s job.

It’s “essentially delegating duties that are appropriate for a regulatory agency out to third parties,” American Petroleum Institute senior vice president Frank Macchiarola said on a conference call Monday. The plan could also “have a chilling effect on companies’ ability to work with the EPA and work with third parties” to reduce methane emissions, he said.

Capping methane has taken on new urgency in the quest to limit global warming because the greenhouse gas is estimated to be at least 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere during the first 20 years after it is released. The sweeping climate-and-tax law known as the Inflation Reduction Act last year established a new fee on the emissions.

For years, citizen activists wielding specialized cameras have documented venting wells and methane plumes unseen by the naked eye. The campaign has helped encourage more intense regulation and voluntary industry action.


But even with documented evidence from optical gas imaging cameras, reports of leaks filed with state authorities “often do not result in any action taken to limit air pollution and protect the public,” the group Earthworks said in submitted comments.

Industry officials say the initiative could encourage activists to trespass on private land, including on farms and near homes with active wells. And they warn that third-party data can be riddled with errors.

Better requirements on the “validity and veracity of the data” are needed to ensure companies don’t have to shut operations over nothing, the Independent Petroleum Association of America and more than a dozen state oil industry groups told the EPA in written comments.

Some oil companies have expressed openness to a new third-party monitoring program.

BP America said that when third-party organizations contribute scientifically sound data, it “can help to identify and solve problems in a transparent, efficient and responsible way.” But the EPA needs to do more work to ensure “there are adequate guidelines and systems in place to verify the quality and integrity of community-generated data,” the company said.

Comments are no longer available on this story