By David J. Hayes
September 5, 2019
State attorneys general have been successfully waging high-profile fights against the administration’s efforts to weaken the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and other bedrock environmental laws.
While these pollution-oriented fights have garnered the most attention, state attorneys general have also been vigorously guarding their states’ conservation interests, including federal intrusions that impact traditional state purview over wildlife and the integrity of land, water and coastal resources.
The EPA hoped no one would notice. It waited until the final days in August, when no one is in town, to quietly announce its intent to lift oil and gas industry requirements to control methane emissions.
It didn’t work. In my world at least, a lot of people noticed. Even friends suffering from severe rollback fatigue snapped out of their daze and expressed outrage. And rightly so.
Here’s why. Everyone understands that climate change is a tough nut to crack, and that it will not be easy to reduce the many types and sources of greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change. But most can agree on one motherhood-and-apple-pie organizing principle: the EPA should move quickly and forcefully when it has clear regulatory authority over GHG emissions from a major industry source and there is a viable pathway for cost-effectively reducing emissions from that industry.
The oil and gas industry and its methane emissions present such a case. Methane plays an oversized role in exacerbating damaging climate change because it is a particularly potent, “super-pollutant” greenhouse gas that traps heat at roughly 84 times the rate of carbon dioxide. Oil and gas operators are the #1 source of methane emissions in the U.S. (and the world), and the EPA has confirmed its authority to regulate the oil and gas industry's methane emissions under the Clean Air Act.
The oil and gas industry has the technology and know-how to cost-effectively stop its methane emissions, but major segments of the industry won’t unless the government requires it. Natural gas prices are low and, in the absence of regulation, many oil and gas companies have no incentive to identify and fix their methane-leaking production, processing, and pipeline systems. On the production side of the business, many operators are simply venting or flaring methane gas to get at higher-value oil deposits.
Major companies in the industry, including BP, Shell and ExxonMobil, recognize that preventable methane emissions are giving the industry a black eye that, among other things, undercuts claims that natural gas has a clear climate advantage over other fossil fuels. Industry leaders do not question the EPA’s authority to regulate methane emissions and are publicly supporting legally-enforceable methane restrictions.
All of these factors tag methane regulation as a climate action that the EPA should be jumping on. Instead, the Trump administration is going in the opposite direction. It is proposing to end any regulation of climate-damaging methane from its largest industrial source — the oil and gas industry.
It is hard to imagine more stark evidence that the administration has zero interest in taking even the most obvious, cost-effective and legally-enforceable steps to combat climate change. The Trump administration’s anti-climate rhetoric has been damaging enough. But now it is taking actions that will dig our climate hole even deeper. It’s just plain wrong.
David J. Hayes is a nationally recognized environmental, energy and natural resources lawyer who leads the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center.