In a widely anticipated move Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency yet again advanced President Donald Trump's deregulatory agenda by weakening rules on oil and gas companies' emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane that were put in place by the Obama administration.
Following reports that the "sickening" policy change would come by the end of this week, former coal lobbyist and current EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in Pittsburgh formally announced two final rules removing the "burdensome and ineffective regulations" on the oil and gas industry.
"This decision is mind-bogglingly stupid and destructive," declared Liz Jones, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "There are few things worse for the climate than the methane spewed by the oil and gas sector, and the solutions are readily available."
"Even for the Trump administration," Jones said, "this is an appalling new low."
The new EPA policies effectively free fossil companies "from the need to detect and repair methane leaks — even as new research shows that far more of the potent greenhouse gas is seeping into the atmosphere than previously known," the New York Times reported Thursday.
"Over the past few years there has been an explosion of new research on this, and the literature has coalesced — 80% of papers show that methane from oil and gas leaks is two to three times higher than the EPA's estimates," Robert Howarth, an earth systems scientist at Cornell University, told the Times.
"It's crazy to roll back this rule," warned Howarth, who last year published a study on North American gas production and methane emissions. "Twenty-five percent of the human-caused warming over the past 20 years is due to methane. Methane is going up. We need it to go down."
Julie McNamara, senior analyst in the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), concurred that methane emissions need to be urgently reduced and condemned the Trump administration for enabling the fossil fuel industry to "pollute with impunity, pocketing short-term profits while leaving communities to deal with the damage for decades to come."
"These rollbacks distort and defy basic principles of science, economics, and policy design — an embarrassing admission that there's no real defense for the administration's demolition of meaningful methane rules," McNamara added. "The idea that the oil and gas industry will control these emissions on their own, without strong standards and enforcement, doesn't pass the laugh test."
Adrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen's Texas office, also called out the administration for catering to the wishes of polluters and propping up a "failing industry." He warned in a statement Thursday:
This damaging new rule won't save fossil fuel corporations, it won't bring the U.S. closer to energy independence, and it won't protect people from dangerous air pollution. It hurts everyone.
In Texas alone, drillers waste 1.4 million tonnes of methane gas each year — enough to supply every home in Dallas and Houston combined. Natural gas companies don't want to waste natural gas, and they supported the Obama-era rule and were planning accordingly. Trump's backward-looking policy deprives industry of what it craves most: regulatory certainty. It only moves the goalposts for a struggling industry.
David Doniger, senior strategic director of Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate & Clean Energy Program, vowed that his organization will fight back against the administration's latest environmental rollback.
"We cannot protect the health of our children and grandchildren, especially in the most polluted and endangered communities, if the EPA lets this industry off scot-free," Doniger said. "We will see EPA in court."
Earthjustice associate attorney Caitlin Miller also pledged to take legal action in response to the new EPA policies.
"With these rollbacks, the Trump administration is compounding an unprecedented public health crisis by exacerbating another," Miller said. "We need strong methane standards to keep our air clean and safe to breathe, and combat the climate crisis."
"EPA must prioritize our health and safety over the profits of oil and gas companies," she added, "and we will hold them accountable in court."