Nighttime photographs of the United States from space are at first surprising and, upon reflection, dismaying. In rural stretches of North Dakota and Texas, where you’d expect to see dark swaths, you instead see bright splashes of light from the burning of uncaptured methane, a natural gas that can be released as a byproduct of oil drilling. Not all of the unused methane produced by oil extraction is “flared,” as the industry calls that burning process. In addition, massive amounts of methane — which is a more dangerous contributor to short-term global warming than carbon dioxide — are simply released and spewed into the atmosphere. Both processes — the burning and the release of wasted methane — are bad for the environment.
Last summer, the Obama administration enacted new regulations to sharply curtail the release or burning of methane from all current and future wells on federal lands. (Similar rules govern all future but not existing wells on non-federal lands.) Naturally, the oil and gas industry argued that the new regulations added a fresh burden on them and increased consumer costs. That may well be true, but there are more important things than making work easy for drillers or keeping oil prices low. One of those is the protection of the environment.
The risk of climate change from global warming has long since moved from abstract theory into reality, even if the ostriches surrounding President Trump won’t see it. Recently appointed Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is joined at the wallet to the industry, as a trove of recently released emails from his work as Oklahoma attorney general confirms, so don’t expect much from him. Conservative members of Congress also buy into the nonsense — as do Trump and Pruitt — that human activity has little to do with rising global temperatures, more severe weather patterns, stressed flora and fauna and what scientists believe is a looming mass extinction that is unfolding at a much faster pace than the five previously identified mass extinctions in history. In terms of Earth’s evolution, that is a split second.
But, oh, the jobs! We need the jobs! And the cheap fuel! The adage of missing the forest for the trees comes to mind. The overwhelming consensus by scientists is that the world needs to move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources such as wind and solar. In the meantime, we need to be even more aggressive, not less, in limiting the burning or release of methane and other harmful emissions.
To that end, the Obama administration regulations were a step in the right direction. Which brings Newton’s Third Law of Physics into play: For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. Earlier this month, the Republican-led House of Representatives invoked the Congressional Review Act to kill the Obama regulations governing wells on federal land, and the bill is now before the Senate, with a vote possible this week.
The Senate should refuse to join the House in passing this irresponsible bill. The methane regulations, which are to be phased in, are good, sensible policy. The federal Bureau of Land Management estimated that between 2009 and 2015, the oil and gas industry wasted, through emissions or flaring, 462 billion cubic feet of methane — enough to supply natural gas for 6.2 million households for a year — from wells in public and tribal lands. Not only was the gas lost, the unburned methane went directly into the atmosphere. And taxpayers missed out on $23 million a year in royalties that would have been due had the methane been captured and sold.
Fortunately, the EPA rules governing non-federal land wells are less likely to be rescinded. The rules were adopted long enough ago that they are no longer subject to the Congressional Review Act, which means that to roll them back, the Trump administration would have to go through a lengthy regulatory review process. Unfortunately, those rules only cover future wells, not existing ones. (The federal land rules cover both.) Instead of attacking the federal land rules, Congress should extend the same regulations to the existing wells on non-federal land. But don’t hold your breath.
The world should be weaning itself from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. That Trump and the Republican Congress disagree is not only disappointing, but dangerous.