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Methane pollution rules make a difference

Congress is poised this week to take final action to restore rules to rein in methane emissions, a powerful contributor to global climate change.

The timing is particularly serendipitous as the West is gripped by record-breaking temperatures, yearslong drought and yet another season of wildfires and smoke-filled skies.

Congressional action would reinstate rules limiting methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, overturning the Trump administration’s abandonment of methane regulation and restoring the Environmental Protection Agency’s comprehensive rules adopted during the Obama administration in 2012 and 2016. Pending action by the House of Representatives is spearheaded by Colorado’s Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat.

Methane is a particularly potent contributor to climate change. During production of natural gas from well fields and transport through pipelines, millions of tons of methane escape via leaks and venting. Methane traps heat in the atmosphere more than 80 times as effectively as carbon dioxide, though its duration is more limited. That’s why quickly reducing methane emissions can have an immediate and dramatic benefit to moderating climate change impacts.

We can watch and fret about heat and drought and fires, but we can also urge our leaders to take swift and effective actions, such as restoring limits on methane pollution, that very well could limit the extent of impacts of future climate change.

Congress is using the Congressional Review Act to overturn a Trump administration era rewrite of EPA rules that required oil and gas companies monitor, detect and repair natural gas leaks at wells and along production lines. The Congressional Review Act allows Congress to override actions taken late in the previous administration. The Senate voted in April to rescind the Trump changes, and a vote in the House is imminent.

Controlling methane emissions has perhaps surprisingly wide support within the oil and gas industries. Major oil companies including Shell, BP and Occidental are on record endorsing the return of strong methane pollution rules.

Natural gas, or methane, inadvertently leaks throughout production and transportation. In some cases, methane is intentionally vented into the atmosphere at wells primarily targeting more valuable oil. The methane rules are intended to prevent wasteful venting, and also require more rigorous efforts to track down and repair leaks on a timely basis.

The benefits of controlling methane pollution from the oil and gas industry could be enormous. It’s estimated the impact from the oil and gas industry’s methane pollution equals or exceeds the climate impact of carbon-dioxide emissions from all of the nation’s coal-fired power plants combined. Given the greater, short-term impact of methane at trapping heat in the atmosphere, swift action to control methane emissions is one of our most effective reactions to the obvious altered weather patterns induced by our changing climate.

Climate activists are pursuing other avenues as well as tried-and-true pollution rules. Recently, shareholders unhappy with ExxonMobile’s response to climate change shockingly took over 25% of the company’s board of directors, electing three new directors more likely to question the company’s commitment to addressing looming climate change concerns and associated financial impacts to its core oil and gas business.

Big oil realizes the reality of the climate change crisis as do most of us. Drought, record-breaking temperatures and fires might well be the new normal and a harbinger of climate-change induced shifts in our weather patterns.

We should not just stand by wringing our hands, hoping for rain and a return to familiar weather patterns, while ignoring the elephant in the room of human contributions to climate change. This week’s action by Congress to restore limits on methane pollution comes as a welcome step.

Mark Pearson is executive director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. Reach him at mark@sanjuancitizens.org.