After our early morning salsa aerobics in the CleanTechnica fitness center, Andrea Bertoli and I topped off our aluminum water bottles at the media lounge filling station. As we chatted, we couldn’t help but to shake our heads. Weren’t enough Trump administration actions already in place to reverse Obama-era environmental and climate action policies? Andrea and I listed the Trump Travesties in rapid fire order. Coal power plants — Fuel economy rules — The 1973 Endangered Species Act — Climate monitoring — Mercury. And now, in one of the biggest no-brainers, the Trump administration has rolled back an Obama-era rule that required energy companies to capture methane that escapes into the atmosphere when they drill on US and tribal lands.
The change in methane regulations could reduce corporate expenditures as much as $2 billion over the next decade if they don’t have to meet US compliance costs. My conversation with Andrea about regressive Trump policies dismayed me so much that I excused myself to one of the CleanTechnica gender-neutral restrooms.
The Trump administration recently moved to lift two rules on the leaking and uncontrolled release of the potent greenhouse gas methane from oil and natural gas operations.
- First, the Interior Department finalized a rule that loosens methane requirements for oil and gas operations on federal lands. Previously, the industry had to detect and capture methane leaking from oil and gas operations on federal lands and pay royalties on it.
- Second, a week earlier, the EPA proposed changes to a methane rule that targeted all new oil and gas operations on private lands. This change, the EPA acknowledged, would come with costs for public health as a result of the additional pollution it would allow. However, the agency said it couldn’t quantify the health costs due to “data limitations.”
Environmentalists slammed the rollback of the rule, which will not be implemented until after a 60-day comment period. The New York Times quotes Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, in a critique of the rollbacks as a “giveaway to irresponsible polluters.”
Methane, one of the most powerful contributors to climate change, is considered more potent as a pollutant than carbon dioxide, although it occurs in smaller volumes. It is a component of natural gas that’s frequently wasted through leaks or intentional releases during drilling operations. Energy companies frequently “flare” or burn off vast supplies of natural gas at drilling sites because the substance does not earn as much money as oil.
A 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office said 40% of the methane gas being burned or vented could be captured economically and sold. Time calculates that the change could also result in the loss of $734 million in natural gas that would have been recovered over the next decade under the old rule. Those savings would have offset some of the industry’s compliance costs.
Flaring has been a common practice in states including Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and New Mexico. Within hours of the announcement, attorneys general for California and New Mexico filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to reinstate the 2016 rule. “We’ve sued the administration before over the illegal delay and suspension of this rule and will continue doing everything in our power to hold them accountable to our people and planet,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said.
“The Trump administration is relentless in its push to give the oil and gas industry multi-million-dollar handouts at the expense of Americans’ health and environment,” added David Doniger, the Natural Resource Defense Council’s senior strategic director for climate and clean energy.
Traditional Energy Companies Rejoice over the Trump Rescinding
Energy companies said the Obama-era language was overly intrusive and that companies need to have an economic incentive to capture the methane so they can sell it. That’s not always practical in fast-growing oil and gas fields, where large volumes of gas are burned off using flares.
“We’re for clean air and water, but at the same time, we’re for reasonable regulations,” deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told reporters. A replacement rule from the Interior Department rescinds mandates for companies to reduce gas pollution, which Trump administration officials say already is required by some states.
Bernhardt and other departmental officials were unable to say how much the new rule would reduce methane emissions. The prior regulation would have cut emissions by up to 163,000 tons a year. Emissions of potentially hazardous pollutants known as volatile organic compounds, which can cause health problems if inhaled, would have been reduced by up to about 73,000 tons annually.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of Western Energy Alliance, said the old rule improperly put the Bureau of Land Management in the role of regulating air quality, which she said should instead be done by the EPA or state agencies.
The new version will eliminate “cumbersome and duplicative requirements” that disadvantage smaller drilling operations, which make up an estimated 7 in 10 wells on public lands, said Katharine MacGregor, a deputy assistant Secretary of Interior.
Next Up: Mercury On The Chopping Block
The EPA is also reconsidering a rule that restricts mercury and toxic air emissions from coal-fired plants. Spokesperson Molly Block said it will initiate a federal review of a draft proposal to determine whether the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, were “appropriate and necessary” while it concurrently evaluates overall standards. “EPA knows these issues are of importance to the regulated community and the public at large and is committed to a thoughtful and transparent regulatory process in addressing them.”
Reuters describes this move by the administration to ease industry regulations as part of a focus on an industry that is important to President Donald Trump’s political base. Under the 2011 MATS rule, coal plants have had to reduce emissions of mercury, a pollutant that can be dangerous to pregnant women and put infants and children at risk of developmental problems. The MATS rule has forced coal plants to add pollution controls to their facilities and has been a factor in causing plants to shut and driving down coal use to the lowest levels in decades. Indeed, most power plants have already complied with the regulation, which required the installation of pollution control technology, while some blatant polluters opted to close.
Several power companies even want the regulation to remain in place.
“If EPA recklessly disrupts the legal obligations to meet the Mercury & Air Toxics Standards, across the country coal plant owners will face legal challenges to prior utility commission approvals of pollution control costs incurred to meet those obligations,” John Walke, director of the federal clean air, climate, and clean energy program with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said. “Worse, EPA could let coal plant owners turn off installed pollution control equipment whose costs are being charged to consumers. Americans will suffer, needlessly.”
The administration has taken steps to ease regulations on coal plants including replacing former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan with a weaker plan.