Last Thursday, the EPA announced the adoption of new environmental standards that will reduce overburdensome regulations on methane emissions from oil and natural gas operations. While the climate alarmists will scream that the end is near, the EPA estimates the new regulations will increase methane emissions by only a few percent over the next 5 years. And it represents an important shift in the EPA’s stance on whether it should regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs) other than carbon dioxide (CO2).
Methane, commonly called natural gas, is a greenhouse gas naturally produced in wetlands and in animal digestion processes. Natural gas is also the source of a third of America’s energy and is sometimes emitted in small quantities as it is produced and consumed.
While environmental groups deride methane as a “super pollutant” because it traps 25 times as much heat as CO2, its climate impact is inconsequential. It is 200 times more dilute in the atmosphere as CO2 and is emitted at 1/200th the rate of CO2. Even if the U.S. eliminated all its methane emissions by 2050, climate models estimate that the effect on average global temperature by 2100 would be 0.03°C. This change is nearly one-fifth the size of the error range of global temperature measurements—and irrelevant within the context of expected temperature rises of 1°C or greater.
The significance of the new standards is that they rescind the direct regulation of methane, and only regulate emissions of volatile organic compounds. The EPA will now be required to determine that methane significantly contributes to air pollution that harms human health and welfare before regulating it, per the requirements of Section 111(b) of the Clean Air Act. It can no longer apply its endangerment finding for CO2 emissions from vehicles.
Since methane is the most significant GHG other than CO2, this ruling would logically apply to other GHGs. By eliminating these regulations that yield no measurable environmental benefits, the EPA can focus its resources on tackling more pressing environmental problems like habitat degradation, waste cleanup, and water pollution.
The EPA will certainly be denigrated in the mainstream and activist media, and even by some large, multinational oil and gas producers that are under pressure to “do something” about climate change. However, the EPA should be applauded for making the correct policy decision, one that will eliminate yet another burden on energy producers to the benefit of American energy workers and energy consumers.
If the federal government is to regulate GHGs, Congress needs to explicitly authorize it in statute and justify it to the American people, rather than having it done behind closed doors through a twisted legal interpretation of the Clean Air Act.
What most Americans do not know (and those who do know routinely ignore this) is that currently, improving technologies and practices are already reducing emissions of all pollutants, even methane. Methane emissions from energy have declined 30% since 1990, despite a 43% increase in U.S. energy production over that time. Total methane emissions in the U.S. have declined 17%. Aggregate emissions of the criteria pollutants listed in the Clean Air Act have fallen 77% since 1970, including 7% over the past three years.
While the prior standards were not going to provide any measurable environmental benefits, they were going to impose significant costs, especially on smaller oil and gas producers and distributors that form the backbone of America’s energy renaissance. The new standards rectify this burden by reducing unnecessary reporting requirements, saving producers and distributors millions of dollars a year and encouraging more development of America’s abundant oil and natural gas resources
The current boom in American energy production is a huge economic benefit to Americans. Over the last 15 years, the United States’ petroleum trade deficit, the balance of imports to exports, has gone from nearly $500 billion to almost zero. That is half a trillion dollars every year staying in the U.S. thanks to the hard work of American energy producers that have made the shale revolution possible.
The “keep it in the ground” movement, which includes many of the groups pushing for more methane regulations, must face the fact that a third of American households report difficulties in paying their household energy bills. American companies also produce energy more cleanly than anyone else in the world. Efforts to stifle American production through excessive regulation, pipeline bans, and restrictions on capital will only harm American families and benefit foreign producers that lack our environmental standards.
The EPA’s current turn away from unnecessary, ideologically driven regulations and toward facilitating more responsible American energy production will yield numerous economic and environmental benefits.
These new standards for methane emissions are one piece of a big puzzle, and there is much more to do. To end poverty around the world and improve the global environment, we need to support American energy.
This commentary originally appeared in Real Clear Energy on August 18, 2020.