Senate restores Obama-era regulation of methane emissions

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) (L) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) attend a press conference on the Senate vote on methane regulation outside of the U.S. Capitol on April 28, 2021 in Washington. DC.

Sarah Silbiger | Getty Images

The U.S. Senate voted on Wednesday to reverse former President Donald Trump’s move to weaken Obama-era regulations to reduce climate change-related methane emissions from oil and gas fields.

The vote between 52 and 42 marks the first official reinstatement of one of more than 100 climate regulations dismantled by the Trump administration. Regulation of methane, a major constituent of natural gas, is critical to fueling President Joe Biden’s goal of halving U.S. greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade from 2005 and achieving a net-zero economy by 2050.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, as well as Sens. Martin Heinrich, D-NM, Angus King, I-ME, and Edward Markey, D-Mass., Passed the resolution under the Congressional Review Act, a law that it allows Congress to quickly override a previous administration’s rules with a simple majority vote and a signature from the President.

The Democratic House is expected to approve the measure and send it to President Joe Biden. The White House supports the passage of the law, according to a statement from the Bureau of Administration and Budget on Tuesday.

The passage of the bill would reintroduce the performance standards set by the Obama administration for new sources of oil and natural gas for 2012 and 2016. Last year’s rollback of the Trump administration removed state requirements for oil and gas companies to monitor and repair methane leaks from pipelines, storage facilities and wells.

In a briefing ahead of the Senate vote, Schumer said the vote was one of the most important steps Congress can take to combat climate change. “This is a very big deal,” said Schumer. “Methane is one of the most toxic things we can put into our atmosphere.”

Three Republican Senators voted for the bill: Susan Collins from Maine, Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, and Rob Portman from Ohio.

On his first day in office, Biden ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to reverse Trump’s methane rollback and propose new regulations for industrial producers.

Trump’s efforts to break the rule have been a victory for the oil and gas industry, which accounts for nearly 30% of US methane emissions. Smaller oil and gas companies, as well as fossil fuel lobbyists who backed Trump’s rollback, have argued that methane regulations are too expensive.

Large oil and gas companies like BP, Shell and Exxon, who have promoted natural gas as a cleaner fuel than coal, have spoken out in favor of methane regulation.

A spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trading group in the oil and gas industry, said the group is working with the Biden government “to support the direct regulation of methane for new and existing wells through a new regulatory process.”

“We have an opportunity to build on the advances the industry has made in reducing methane emissions through technological advances, and we are determined to find common ground for low-cost government policies,” the spokesman said.

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The Senate vote was also welcomed by scientists and environmental groups, who have long said that curbing methane emissions is critical to avoiding the worst effects of climate change.

Methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide and accounts for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Methane also doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, making it a good target to reduce global warming faster, in addition to efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

“This vote reiterates President Biden’s instruction in his day one ordinance that the EPA severely curtail the rampant methane leakage from new and existing oil and gas operations across the country,” said David Doniger, senior strategic director of the Climate and Clean Program Energy to the Defense Council for Natural Resources.

According to research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, carbon dioxide and methane emissions reached record highs in 2020 despite global lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Such a sustained increase in emissions could warm the atmosphere by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, which is well above the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement of keeping warming below 2 degrees.

A new study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters suggests that a push to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry and the agriculture of other human sources could slow global warming by up to 30%.

“Today’s bipartisan vote marks the beginning of the restoration of sound methane policies at the federal level,” said Dan Grossman, senior director of regulatory and legislative affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Oil and gas producers, environmental officials and members of both parties agree that we need to get methane regulation going again,” said Grossman.

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