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ENVIRONMENT

EPA Proposes to Roll Back Methane Regulations

A sign warning of methane present at a well facility. (Photo: Jeremy Buckingham)
A sign warning of methane present at a well facility. (Photo: Jeremy Buckingham)

“If EPA moves forward with this reckless and sinister proposal, we will see them in court.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Thursday that it plans to soften Obama-era restrictions on methane, a potent greenhouse gas contributing to climate change.

“EPA’s proposal delivers on President Trump’s executive order and removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement.

The rule changes would remove limitations on methane emissions from new pipelines, drilling wells, and storage facilities and cut regulations on inspections for leaks. In the statement accompanying the rule’s announcement, the agency stated that it is seeking comment on “alternative interpretations of EPA’s legal authority to regulate pollutants,” a move that could weaken the federal government’s ability to impose restrictions of greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals.

Methane accounted for roughly 10 percent of all human-driven greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. in 2017, according to the EPA. Scientists view it as a significant driver of global warming, and roughly 30 times as potent as a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide, although it does not stay in the atmosphere as long.

While some fossil fuel groups praised the plan, such as the American Petroleum Institute, others support the prior restrictions. Shell, ExxonMobil, and BP have each urged the Trump administration to maintain the federal regulations, having already made accommodations to comply with the Obama-era rules.

While the EPA argues downward trends in methane emissions will continue despite the change, David McCabe, a senior scientist at the Clean Air Task Force, told the Washington Post that the reason emissions have dropped in the past was due to regulations. The Post reports that emissions dropped in both 2012 and 2016, each time after new regulations took effect.

The EPA estimates that eliminating methane emissions would save fossil fuel companies between $97-$123 million through 2025. The proposal is undergoing a period of public comment before being established.

Trump Focused On Fossil Fuel Development

The news comes days after President Trump skipped a meeting of global leaders at the G7 conference to discuss climate change in a demonstration of the widening gulf between the United States and other countries in approaching the crisis. Last week, a report from Global Witness showed the U.S. is on track to create nearly two-thirds of the world’s new fossil fuel production over the next 10 years, in defiance of repeated warnings from scientists of the need to reduce carbon emissions.

The EPA noted its methane rule change is a response to President Trump’s Executive Order 13783, which ordered agencies to review regulations that inhibit domestic energy resources. The president has also signed executive orders to speed pipeline production across state and international lines.

Notably, EPA head Andrew Wheeler worked as a lobbyist for Murray Energy, the largest underground coal company in the U.S., before joining the Trump administration. Murray Energy has long fought climate legislation, leading critics to believe Wheeler’s decision-making at the EPA is compromised by his extensive prior involvement with the industry he is charged with regulating.

Environmentalists Vow To Fight Back

Environmentalists vowed to fight back against the proposal. Rachel Kyte, the United Nations special representative on sustainable energy, calling it “extraordinarily harmful.”

“Just at a time when the federal government’s job should be to help localities and states move faster toward cleaner energy and a cleaner economy, just at that moment when speed and scale is what’s at stake, the government is walking off the field,” said Kyte.

Others pointed to the Trump administration’s actions lying in contrast to growing concern about climate change in the population, as record breaking heat waves and intensified storms demonstrate the early effects of climate destabilization. Last month was the hottest July in recorded history.

“With the Amazon burning, farms under water, and hurricanes looming, Trump has decided to lift regulations on methane— one of the most dangerous greenhouse gases. Even oil and gas companies think this is too far. We need a President who will act on climate, not make it worse,” tweeted former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

“We simply cannot protect our children and grandchildren from climate catastrophe if EPA lets this industry off scot-free,” David Doniger, a climate and clean energy specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Reuters. “If EPA moves forward with this reckless and sinister proposal, we will see them in court.”

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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