The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday announced it will reverse Obama-era limitations on the greenhouse gas methane, which is far more potent than carbon dioxide and often associated with fracking.
In a statement Thursday, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the Trump administration will remove “unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry” by slashing methane regulations.
A number of major fossil fuel corporations have objected to the rollback, however, even as the oil and gas lobby more broadly has played a key role in securing the move. Meanwhile, environmental activists and public-health experts have expressed alarm at the potential impacts of loosening methane regulations.
Under existing rules, fossil fuel companies must closely monitor methane leaks while undergoing frequent inspections. The new rules would undo these processes. The Trump administration argued that the federal government overstepped its authority with the Obama-era regulations.
Instead, the EPA will regulate ozone-forming volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are released as a byproduct of fuel-burning. The agency argues that regulating VOCs will be a more effective approach to targeting methane emissions, as curbing those compounds will reduce methane at the same time. EPA officials also believe fossil fuel companies will voluntarily keep methane emissions low due to cost concerns.
“The Trump Administration recognizes that methane is valuable, and the industry has an incentive to minimize leaks and maximize its use,” said Wheeler.
During a call with reporters on Thursday morning, Anne Idsal, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, argued that the change would save the oil and natural gas industry “millions” in a boon to the U.S. economy.
“Our regulations should not stifle… progress,” Idsal said, going on to assert that the EPA has received mostly “positive comments” from business interests in response to the announcement.
Under President Donald Trump, the EPA has repeatedly sought to roll back or weaken environmental regulations, often to the benefit of the fossil fuel industry. Thursday’s move marks the latest in a long series of similar policy decisions, but activists and scientists alike have expressed major alarm over the methane announcement.
Carbon dioxide remains the most significant greenhouse gas, as well as the one scientists connect most often to global warming. In comparison, methane is not emitted in very large amounts and the gas does not linger in the atmosphere for as long as carbon dioxide does. But methane is deeply potent and the main component of natural gas. Over a 20-year timespan, methane has around 80 times the heat-trapping power of carbon, making it a major source of concern when it comes to limiting global warming.
In the United States, methane makes up about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions, with much of that associated with oil and gas. Methane is a byproduct of fracking and released as fossil fuels are extracted. Exposure can cause a range of health symptoms in humans, including dizziness and nausea.
Reactions to the rollback have ranged wildly within the fossil fuel sector. Small and independent oil and gas producers, for example, have lobbied for weakening methane regulations. The American Petroleum Institute (API) has also long pushed for loosening the regulations and greeted the news, in addition to defending the decision.
“This ‘rollback’ narrative is false and also dismisses the effective role of technology, innovation and industry initiative in reducing emissions,” the trade association tweeted Thursday.
But oil and gas hasn’t lined up uniformly behind the Trump administration. A number of high-profile oil giants, including ExxonMobil and Shell, have opposed the EPA’s efforts to weaken methane regulations.
As the public becomes increasingly concerned about climate change, fossil fuel companies have touted natural gas as an energy source cleaner than coal — often cited as the most environmentally dangerous fossil fuel. And some in the industry have worried that weakening methane regulations will be a blow to natural gas marketing efforts, hurting oil and gas interests at a time when renewable energy is booming.
In response to Thursday’s news, top Shell executive Gretchen Watkins asserted that her company plans to continue reducing its methane emissions, with a goal of cutting its net carbon footprint 50% by mid-century.
The corporations voicing opposition to the rollback, however, are members of API — a contradiction that has drawn ire from environmental groups. On Thursday, many of these organizations slammed the EPA’s move as a handout to industry at the expense of human health and the environment.
“The proposed elimination of critical national safeguards against oil and gas methane pollution is reckless, and it will impact millions of families living with oil and gas air pollution in their backyards,” Lauren Pagel, policy director for the group Earthworks, said in a statement.
The League of Conservation Votes (LCV) meanwhile panned the Trump administration’s methane move as “tone-deaf” because the timing coincides with the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which left Louisiana and the Gulf Coast devastated almost 15 years ago. Scientists attribute worsening hurricanes to climate change.
Democrats also criticized the decision. Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), co-chair of the Congressional Safe Climate Caucus, said that the rollback would “endanger American lives” and exacerbate climate change.
“It should be telling for everyone trying to make sense of this move that even fossil fuel companies think they are going too far,” Beyer said in a statement.
EPA officials said that after a public comment period and review, the new rule is likely to be finalized in 2020.