Methane Controls Become Latest Environmental Protection Axed By US
In the latest instalment of the long-running assault on environmental protection in the US, the Trump Administration has rolled back yet another regulation, this time one which instituted controls of the methane emissions of the oil and natural gas industries.
The move is a reversal of an Obama-era rule which required oil and gas companies to take steps to limit the leakage of methane from new wells and pipelines, in its transportation and storage. The regulation was put in place in 2016 as part of efforts by the Obama Administration to curb the oil and gas sector’s methane emissions by 20-30%.
Trump’s EPA, however, announced on Thursday that it would remove regulations on the “transmission and storage segment of the oil and gas industry”, commenting that the rule imposed was “not appropriate”. Methane emissions limits in processing and production are also to be rescinded as part of the plan, and the agency is looking to reinterpret its legal authority to regulate pollutants. The EPA states that “the Trump Administration recognizes that methane is valuable and the industry has an incentive to minimize leaks and maximize its use” however, if implemented, these plans would allow the industry to largely police itself, which could have dangerous environmental consequences.
Methane, a greenhouse gas, is the lesser known but far more potent counterpart to Carbon Dioxide. It has much greater ability to trap heat than CO2, pound for pound, and a much shorter atmospheric lifetime, meaning it causes intense warming over a short period of time in contrast to the harmful warming effects of CO2, which can be spread over centuries. According to the Environmental Defence Fund, in the decade or so that methane remains in the atmosphere, its potency is eighty-four times that of CO2, and it is responsible for about a quarter of the man-made global warming the planet is currently experiencing.
The implications of this kind of warming for human, natural and agricultural health are severe, and are compounded by the fact that methane produces ozone, another greenhouse gas, which the Climate and Clean Air Coalition estimates to be responsible for around one million premature respiratory deaths globally.
This latest move has even drawn criticism from some of the leading actors in the oil and natural gas industry, such as BP, Exxon and Shell. Shell US’ President, Gretchen Watkins, said of the decision, “We believe sound environmental policies are foundational to the vital role natural gas can play in the energy transition and have made clear of our support of the 2016 law” and promised that the company would stick to global methane emissions targets regardless of the EPA’s plans.
This most recent step by the Trump Administration comes almost three years into the first term of a president whose explicitly stated goal has been, from the outset, to undo as much of the regulation in place to protect the environment against the harmful side effects of industry as possible.
According to the New York Times, the administration has, so far, unravelled, or is in the process of unravelling, eighty-four environmental rules, spanning a wide range of areas from animal protections to air pollution and emissions. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a policy aimed at combating climate change, has been replaced with a much weaker set of rules, affording individual states much greater freedom to set their own environmental rules, and many important requirements and limits placed on industries such as oil and natural gas have been removed.
For instance, beginning in June 2018, regulations instituted after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which concerned offshore drilling safety and measures to protect the US’ oceans and Great Lakes were rescinded. Prior to this, in February 2017, a rule preventing coal companied from dumping mine debris in local streams was removed and requirements for federal agencies to minimize the impact of planned projects of water, wildlife and land have been repealed.
Announced in June of this year were plans to introduce sweeping changes to the Endangered Species Act which has been credited with bringing animals such as the bald eagle and the Yellowstone grizzly bear back from the edge of extinction. The proposed alterations would also remove the current ban on considering economic factors as part of decisions as to whether or not a species should be given protected status. The changes coincide with ongoing plans to allow oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge and follow the removal of other animal protections such limits on the number of endangered whales, dolphins and sea turtles which could be killed or injured by sword-fishing nets on the West coast which were cancelled in June 2017.
The EPA’s latest move is a result of a review of the 2016 New Source Performance Standards for the natural gas industry, conducted as a result of an executive order issued by President Trump, the agency said. The order instructs federal agencies to “review existing regulations that potentially “burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources,”’ and the EPA estimates that the rollback will save the oil and natural gas industry $17-19 million a year.
The EPA’s administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former lawyer at a legal and lobbying firm which represented many of the big names in the fossil fuels industry, stated that the agency’s plan “delivers on President Trump’s executive order and removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry”, arguing that “[government] regulations should not stifle [its] innovation and progress.”
Research conducted by the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-partisan watchdog organization, however, contradicts the claim that environmental regulation is a hindrance for the economy and enterprise. A report published in 2017 seeks to provide evidence against what is describes as the “myth” that slashing environmental regulation is inherently economically beneficial.
Such regulations, it argues, in fact tend to create rather than kill jobs, especially given that the clean energy industry requires more labour for every unit of electricity generated and produces more jobs for every dollar invested than the fossil fuel sector, meaning that the transition to clean energy can produce net gains rather than losses in employment. According to a 2014 OECD report, stronger environmental policies lead to permanently higher levels of productivity and the US’ Office of Management and Budget recorded a net economic benefit of over $500 billion a year as a result of environmental regulations between 2005 and 2014.
The US’ rejection of environmental protections took on a global character with the June 2017 withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord which was accompanied by the cessation of contributions to the Green Climate Fund, a UN program designed to help poorer countries reduce their carbon emissions. According to the Climate Action Tracker, an independent group which monitors environmental change and the contribution of individual countries to it, the USA is 'critically insufficient' in its approach to the climate, and, were all countries to adopt its approach, global warming would exceed 4ºc, far beyond the Paris Accord’s 1.5ºc target.
The abdication of environmental responsibility by the US federal government has not, however, prevented actors at lower levels from continuing their work to combat the climate crisis. Since the US’ withdrawal, a number of US cities, states, companies and universities have nonetheless committed to sticking to the targets set for them under the Paris Accord, and have submitted plans to do so to the UN.
The Trump Administration’s path to deregulation has not been entirely without complication either. Ten rules which the government attempted to undo have since been reinstated following lawsuits or other challenges, and efforts to salvage the protections which the administration’s attentions are currently turned to are ongoing. As of mid-August, a group of twenty-nine states and cities are suing the government in an attempt to block the loosening of restrictions on coal-burning power plants in a case which has the potential to end up in the Supreme Court and, as a result, shape the office of the President’s powers over environmental policy for years to come.