WASHINGTON (CN) – Unraveling rules that it had tried for years to put on hold, the Environmental Protection Agency released a proposal Thursday to cut regulations on methane, the second most potent greenhouse gas that accelerates global warming.
The proposed rollback will remove federal inspection requirements for methane-well leaks as well as at methane pipelines and storage facilities. It also maintains regulations on methane produced by way of volatile organic compounds, a separate category of gases.
Methane is the primary ingredient in natural gas and it is a powerhouse at trapping heat. It traps more heat than carbon dioxide when released into the atmosphere, and it makes up nearly 10% of all greenhouse gases emitted from the United States.
Under last year’s recommendations by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, methane emissions would need to drop 35% below levels set in 2010 for the planet to hold rising temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
United Nations special representative Rachel Kyte told The New York Times on Thursday that the proposal was “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,” Kyte said.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said Thursday that the 2016 regulations were unfair because the agency had failed to make separate findings determining whether the emissions from sources like compressor stations and storage vessels were in fact the cause of increased air pollution.
The rollback is in line with an executive order issued by President Donald Trump last year directing federal agencies to further develop energy resources.
“The Trump administration recognizes that methane is valuable, and the industry has an incentive to minimize leaks and maximize its use,” Wheeler said. “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%. Our regulations should not stifle this innovation and progress.”
Bill McKibben, who founded the climate change campaign organization 350.org, warned Thursday, however, that this reversal of methane regulations poses an even greater danger than most might initially realize.
“It's always been difficult for the media, and hence the public, to understand methane,” McKibben said in an email. “As our carbon emissions have fallen, our methane emissions have risen steadily — it's possible that our total greenhouse gas emissions have not gone down at all. What a farce.”
When he wrote about the phenomenon for The Nation, McKibben noted that Harvard researchers had published a paper in Geophysical Research Letters that said the U.S. is leaking methane at a rate far greater than original EPA estimates. According to satellite and ground observations, from 2002 to 2014, methane emissions actually shot up over 30%.
This, in turn, has forced more public and congressional focus on carbon dioxide.
As a result, coal-fired power plants have shuttered and have been steadily replaced with natural gas-burning plants.
While this helps carbon dioxide levels tick downward, McKibben likened this method to cutting one’s hair for weight loss.
The EPA conducted an impact-analysis study on the regulation and reportedly found that if enforced, it would save the oil and gas industry $17 to $19 million per year, or roughly $97 to $123 million between 2019 and 2025.
If it isn’t stopped, the new rule is expected to take effect next year. The rule must undergo a 60-day public-comment period before being finalized.
Oil and gas companies are split in their reaction to the anticipated rollback. In the past, companies like Exxon have warned against rolling back methane regulations. The company advocated for maintaining Obama-era standards in a letter to the EPA last December.
Exxon and other oil and gas companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, have a stake in maintaining the methane regulations because a rollback could threaten to put a negative spotlight on the natural-gas industry at a time when anxieties around a rapidly warming planet are already high.
When the EPA was under the direction of former administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency attempted to suspend the methane regulation broadly. Pruitt first ordered that the rule be suspended for 90 days and then ordered the agency extend it to a two-year moratorium.
When a divided D.C. Circuit panel nipped that plan in the bud two years ago, the majority called the EPA unreasonable and said the agency did not have the sole authority to overrule Clean Air Act terms.
“EPA’s stay, in other words, is essentially an order delaying the rule’s effective date, and this court has held that such orders are tantamount to amending or revoking a rule,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judges David Tatel and Robert Wilkins, appointees of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively.
Against a dissent by U.S. Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, the court sent the EPA back to the drawing board, saying only a new rule could undo the Obama-era rule.
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