EnergyPublic LandSocial Justice

Dirty Situation: The Hidden Costs of Methane Emissions

Last year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced new rules for methane emissions from oil and natural gas operations. The rules were to limit methane emissions from new fossil fuel infrastructure and require operators to submit to periodic monitoring. But this past February, the U.S. House passed a resolution to rescind the BLM rule. And last month, the Trump-era EPA announced the withdrawal of its methane rule.

Were these Obama-era methane rules just “regulatory overreach”, as President Donald Trump and his allies claim? Or will the undoing of these methane rules lead to more trouble?

The Obama Administration methane rules were meant to help the U.S. meet its Paris Accord international climate action targets… And shine light on a secretive, shadowy industry.

Until recently, the fossil fuel industry ran into little resistance to its claims that growing natural gas development helps in the fight against climate change. That began to change when the Southern California Aliso Canyon methane leak made headline news in October 2015. Environmentalists stepped up their efforts to expose what they sense is the dirty truth behind the “clean oil and gas” rhetoric.

Just before President Barack Obama left office, his administration launched new rules under the EPA and the BLM (as much fossil fuel extraction occurs on federal public lands) to require more disclosure of methane leaks and limit overall emissions. In 2012, 30% of U.S. methane emissions came from oil and gas operations. And the U.S. obtained about a third of its electricity from natural gas in 2016, up from 24% in 2010.

Contrary to fossil fuel industry talking points, natural gas is dirtier and more wasteful than you think.

80% of natural gas is methane. And methane traps heat 86 times more effectively than fellow greenhouse gas carbon dioxide over a 20-year span. Scientists have released multiple studies in recent years detailing how methane leaks essentially erase any environmental advantage natural gas would otherwise hold over other fossil fuels.

Environmental Defense Fund released analysis in 2015 showing U.S. taxpayers lose about $330 million worth of oil and gas that’s wasted (as in leaked, vented, or burned) on public lands annually. Additionally, the Western Values Project released its report in 2014 detailing how U.S. taxpayers lose at least $800 million a year in royalties from the venting and flaring of natural gas on federal public lands. The fossil fuel industry has attacked the BLM methane rule as “wasteful overreach”, yet the rule was designed with the goal of cutting the waste that taxpayers ultimately have to pay for.

Residents throughout the American West have also worried about the health risks of methane leaks. Residents in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Porter Ranch are particularly worried, as the 2015 Aliso Canyon leak caused everything from bloody noses and suffocation to nausea and headaches. Though state and federal officials stress there’s currently no evidence of long-term harm to Porter Ranch, residents now fear higher risk of cancer… Or at least ongoing health threats as long as natural gas extraction continues in the area.

Even though the Trump Administration is divided over whether to stay in the Paris Accord, the Trump White House has been rolling back Obama White House programs to cut carbon emissions.

The methane rules are among those programs rolled back by Trump and Congressional Republicans. On February 3, the U.S. House voted 221-191 to repeal the BLM methane rule drafted under then President Barack Obama last year. Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Carson City) voted to repeal the BLM methane rule, while Reps. Dina Titus (D-Paradise), Ruben Kihuen (D-Las Vegas), and Jacky Rosen (D-Henderson) voted against. On February 14, U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) condemned Republican efforts to repeal the BLM methane rule. So far, U.S. Senator Dean Heller (R) has not addressed this in public.

Donald Trump has already promised more oil and gas drilling on federal public lands. Last month, the EPA scrapped its methane rule under his direction. Even though Senator Heller has kept mum thus far on the methane rules, he has endorsed efforts to release federal public lands to states, increasing the odds of more fossil fuel extraction (and methane leaks) happening in Nevada and elsewhere. Will he eventually disclose where he stands on making the fossil fuel industry come clean on methane?

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