Trump administration proposes weaker monitoring of major greenhouse gas

Trump administration proposes weaker monitoring of major greenhouse gas
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A newly proposed Trump administration rule would allow for weaker monitoring of methane, a major greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.

The proposed rule rolled out Thursday morning by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would eliminate current requirements on oil and gas companies to install technology to monitor methane emissions from pipelines, wells and facilities.

Methane is a major component of natural gas and frequently leaks from drilling and transportation. While the gas has a shorter lifespan than carbon dioxide, another major greenhouse gas contributor, methane is significantly more harmful. Some studies indicate that the climate change-linked gas is 80 times more adept at trapping heat in the atmosphere in the first 20 years than carbon dioxide.

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EPA said the oil and gas industry is already interested in capturing valuable methane and the new rule would reduce their overhead, saving them millions of dollars in compliance-related spending. 

Agency officials said Thursday that the new rule would still maintain “appropriate” health and environmental regulations.

“EPA’s proposal delivers on President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE’s executive order and removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry," Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerScientists join Democrats in panning EPA's 'secret science' rule Overnight Energy: BLM staff face choice of relocation or resignation as agency moves | Trump says he's 'very much into climate' | EPA rule would expand limits on scientific studies EPA rule proposes to expand limitations on scientific studies MORE said in a statement.

“The Trump Administration recognizes that methane is valuable, and the industry has an incentive to minimize leaks and maximize its use. Since 1990, natural gas production in the United States has almost doubled while methane emissions across the natural gas industry have fallen by nearly 15 percent. Our regulations should not stifle this innovation and progress.” 

The changes would amend a previous methane regulation determined under Obama in 2016. That Obama rule estimated that regulation of the gas would save the country nearly $690 million per year in social costs. In comparison, the Trump administration’s proposal estimates savings of $97 to $123 million between 2019 to 2025 for the oil and gas industry.

The Obama-era rule was also designed to reduce 500,000 short tons of methane a year. The latest rule estimates it would reduce 370,000 short tons annually.

Oil and gas companies have largely been in support of regulating methane.

The president of BP America, Susan Dio, called methane regulations “the right thing to do for the planet” in a March op-ed.

The chairwoman said it was “essential” that the EPA regulate the greenhouse gas.

Environmentalists and former agency officials said the rule won’t just lead to an increase in harmful methane, but that it could also undermine the EPA’s authority to regulate the gas and could block future administrations from taking meaningful action to do so.

“I would say it’s a lose-lose-lose. It’s a bad environmental outcome, it’s a bad outcome for what the industry itself is now saying it needs, and it’s pretty much outright sabotage of the EPA’s own legal authority and what the Clean Air Act was enacted to accomplish,” said Joseph Goffman, who helped develop the Obama-era regulations on methane at EPA and now serves as executive director of the Environmental & Energy Law Program at Harvard Law School.

Critics compared Thursday’s proposed rule to the administration's recent replacement of the Obama era Clean Power Plan (CPP), which weakened pollution regulations. Environmental groups have already sued over the rule, but legal experts say a loss on their side could limit the EPA’s ability to address climate changing pollution in administrations to come.

“This not only is the Trump EPA abandoning the effort to regulate methane, but it looks like it’s going to be propelling a legal theory that will subvert the fundamental authority of the Clean Air Act to regulate it,” Goffman said. “It’s not just that they’re sabotaging climate policy--they’re sabotaging the foundation of environmental law itself.” 

Supporters of the rule unveiled Thursday say it will allow surging oil and gas industry in the U.S. to be more successful. The U.S. in the past year became the top producer of liquid natural gas.

“The United States has become the world’s leading oil and natural gas producer, providing affordable, reliable power to families and businesses. But heavy-handed regulations yielding negligible climate benefits threaten the United States’ ability to produce affordable energy. The Obama administration’s methane regulations were a costly, non-solution in search of a problem,” said Thomas Roe, a fellow in energy and environment policy at the Heritage Foundation.

The American Petroleum Institute, a major oil and gas lobby, said Thursday's regulation would leave the sector “effectively regulated.”

“We support EPA’s efforts to adhere to its statutory obligations under the Clean Air Act,” Erik Milito, API’s vice president of upstream and industry operations, said in a statement.

Anne Idsal, acting assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, estimated that changes to the rule would not stop the current decreasing trend of methane gas in the atmosphere, arguing that industry has an incentive to capture and sell the gas.

“Methane is a valuable resource,” she said on a call with reporters, adding that industry was on an upward trend in capturing the gas. “There is every incentive to minimize any fugitive methane emissions, capture it, use it, and sell it down the road.”

Janet McCabe, who filled the same role as Isdal under the Obama administration and helped develop the standards the Trump team is now attempting to roll back, though, said the EPA regulations will complicate things for the oil and gas industry.

“This administration is injecting a whole new round of uncertainty cause whatever comes out there will most certainly be litigation” once the rule is finalized, she said. “Companies are planning now want to know if they should invest in certain pieces of equipment.”

But she said the agency is wrong to try and favor industry over the need to protect the public and the environment.

“One thing that’s been so frustrating with so many proposals that come out of this administration is the EPA is public health agency,” McCabe said. “But that’s not what you read in these proposals. You read about regulatory relief to business and a real minimizing of the evaluation of the effects they would have on public health.”

Last updated at 1:06 p.m.