Methane rule: Politics and the profits of one sector cannot be allowed to trump science

Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017 11:23 AM
This undated handout image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan, shows The Four Corners area, in red, left, is the major US hot spot for methane emissions in this map showing how much emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003-2009 (dark colors are lower than average; lighter colors are higher. Satellite data spotted a surprising hot spot of the potent heat-trapping gas methane over part of the American southwest. Those measurements hint that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considerably underestimates leaks of natural gas, also called methane. In a new look at methane from space, the four corners area of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah jump out in glowing red with about 1.3 million pounds of methane a year. (AP Photo/NASA, JPL-Caltech, University of Michigan)

In 2016, the Bureau of Land Management finalized regulations about venting, flaring or leaking natural gas during energy production on federal and tribal lands. Some provisions took effect early this year; others were scheduled for next month.

Now, facing legal challenges, the Interior Department announced on Thursday that it is postponing implementation of the second portion of the rule for another year.

That may seem like a minor detail, but the methane hot spot looming over the Four Corners region – the continent’s largest – is the result of the activities the rule is designed to prevent. Researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology identified more than 250 sources in the region. A few were natural seeps, but two thirds of the methane was emitting from approximately 25 sources, all of them energy-related. That matters. Atmospheric methane is a significant contributor to climate change, with the potential to trap far more heat than carbon dioxide traps.

The recent proposal for public and tribal lands is part of a larger push for deregulation of the industry. The Obama administration issued a rule to prevent the release of significant amounts of methane. This year, EPA director Scott Pruitt proposed delaying implementation of that rule, but an appeals court blocked the delay. Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins blocked an effort to cancel the rule using the Congressional Review Act, a legislative tool that the GOP has used this year to reverse regulation by the prior administration and which McCain said would prevent the BLM from making a similar rule in the future. The pattern is clear.

Some energy producers had already invested in equipment necessary for compliance with the previously announced regulations. Postponing them now provides an advantage to those who had not moved to comply.

Historically, energy companies have found it cheaper to vent or flare natural gas from wells than to capture and transport it to market. In many cases, they say, that’s still true. Whether that justifies such waste is a separate question. The natural gas and royalty revenues lost to leaks, and intentional venting and flaring, is significant, representing enough heat for hundreds of thousands of homes each year. As abundant as natural gas seems now, the world’s energy resources are finite and government coffers are missing out.

President Donald Trump has hundreds of millions of other constituents besides energy companies, and they deserve more consideration than they are receiving. The administration must look more carefully at all sides of this issue and consider factors beyond short-term profits.

The U.S. government cannot continue to ignore science just because it is inconvenient.