Democrats move to reinstate methane rules loosened by Trump

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats are moving to reinstate regulations designed to limit potent greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas fields, part of a broader effort by the Biden administration to combat climate change.

The Senate is set to take up a resolution Wednesday that would undo an environmental rollback by President Donald Trump that relaxed requirements of a 2016 Obama administration rule targeting methane emissions from oil and gas drilling.

The Environmental Protection Agency approved the rule last year. The agency’s former administrator, Andrew Wheeler, declared the change would “strengthen and promote American energy” while saving companies tens of millions of dollars a year in compliance requirements.

Democrats and environmentalists called the methane rollback one of the Trump administration’s most egregious actions to deregulate U.S. businesses, noting that methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, packing a stronger punch in the short term than even carbon dioxide.

Preventing methane leaks at oil and gas sites “is a huge part of how we prevent a 1.5 degree (Celsius) rise in global temperatures,” a key aim of the climate movement, said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.

Heinrich, a member of the Senate Energy Committee, is co-sponsoring the resolution under the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to overturn certain regulations that have been in place for a short time. The Trump rule was finalized last September.

Heinrich called the resolution “a no-brainer,” saying that preventing leaks of methane — a type of natural gas — will save companies money, put people to work and help prevent global warming. The measure is supported by all 50 Senate Democrats as well as Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, but Heinrich and other Democrats say they are hopeful more Republicans will join them.

A similar measure is pending in the House and is expected to win approval.

“I’m surprised and a little disappointed this is not broadly bipartisan,” Heinrich said, noting that many energy companies, including Shell Oil Co., Occidental Petroleum and Cheniere Energy Inc., support reinstatement of the Obama-era rule.

“It’s sort of inertia and dogma at this point” by Republicans to oppose the methane rule, he said in an interview.

Collins, who joined with Democrats to block a GOP-led effort to overturn a similar Obama-era methane rule in 2017, said the new resolution would help tackle climate change and “protect public health and the environment by restoring the tougher standards at EPA that significantly decreased methane emissions.”

Methane is significantly more potent than carbon dioxide “and is highly destructive to the climate,” Collins said.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said Democrats appear intent on demonizing natural gas even though increased natural gas production — spurred by the fracking boom — “actually helped lead to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” over the past decade.

Capito, the top Republican on the Senate Environment Committee, said President Joe Biden “managed to kill thousands of jobs and paralyze America’s energy industry with executive orders” soon after taking office. Biden’s moratorium on new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters “is an economic, energy and national security disaster rolled into one,” she said.

The order “moves America from energy independence back to relying on foreign adversaries for energy — countries that have much laxer environmental standards,” Capito wrote in an op-ed Monday in The Washington Times. She called the leasing pause part of a looming war against natural gas, a fossil fuel that contributes to global warming, although at a lower rate than coal or oil.

“The forces against natural gas are growing,” she said, adding that many Democrats and environmentalists also oppose coal “or any other energy source that’s not blessed by the Green New Deal.”

Democrats disputed that notion. The Green New Deal — a widely touted but nonbinding proposal to shift the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels such as oil and coal and replace them with renewable sources such as wind and solar power — has not been approved in either the House or the Senate.

David Doniger, a clean-energy expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said natural gas has “significant leakage” at every stage in the production process, from drilling to movement through pipelines.

Doniger called the Trump administration’s rollback “a free pass for America’s oil and gas companies to keep leaking,” adding, “If you are looking for fast relief from the worst effects of global warming, then methane control is high on your list.”

Repealing the Trump rule not only is beneficial in itself, Doniger said, but it also will send a strong signal that “America is back on course” in the fight against climate change, “and this Congress wants to get action done on climate.”

Heinrich agreed, adding that the U.S. needs to “build credibility on the world stage” on climate change following “four years of inaction and hostility to climate policy” under Trump.

“It’s a great opportunity to build momentum” as Congress considers Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan later this year, Heinrich said. The plan targets nearly $1 trillion in spending on climate and clean energy, including 500,000 charging stations for electric vehicles, a significant expansion of solar and wind power, and development of technology to capture and store carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Heinrich noted that congressional approval of the methane rule also would help Biden at the global meeting on climate change, scheduled for November in Glasgow, Scotland. The votes would tell other countries that, “we’re not just rejoining (the Paris climate accord) but we will lead the world on climate,” he said.