As President Trump flouts international calls to act on climate change, his administration is finding the pressure at home tougher to ignore.
The limitations of Trump’s power to reset U.S. climate policy has been on full display over the last few days in Washington. White House plans to scrap restrictions on the release of a potent greenhouse gas are getting stymied by the courts, by forceful public opposition and even by Republicans in Congress.
The administration’s struggle to free oil and gas companies from Obama-era limits on how much methane they can release into the air reflects the challenge Trump faces in carrying out his “America first” energy policy. Signing executive orders and making speeches were the easy part. Pushing policies to fruition is proving more complicated.
The thicket of legal issues entangling the administration on methane comes as it is facing an onslaught on another environmental front. Its plans to roll back national monument protections — ordered by Trump himself — are about to enter a crucial stage, and the wind is hardly at the back of the White House as it does.
About 2.5 million Americans have submitted comments as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke prepares to announce which public lands would lose protections. A large sampling analyzed by the Center for Western Priorities found just 1% of the commenters wrote to express support for the Trump plan.
The fight over methane — a gas that accelerates global warming at 25 times the rate of carbon — has also proved more fraught than the administration may have anticipated.
After three GOP senators defected from party leaders to vote down a bill that would have scrapped the methane rules on public land, the administration moved to go it alone. It used executive authority to put on hold the public-land rule and an even farther-reaching methane rule the Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to enforce nationwide.
But the administration found itself stymied again last week, when a federal court ruled that the EPA didn’t have the authority to delay enforcement by even 90 days.
By Monday, emboldened activists were making a show of force at EPA headquarters in Washington, where scores of them appeared to testify against the agency’s broader plan to shelve the methane rules for two years, which appeared unlikely given the court ruling. They vastly outnumbered oil and gas industry representatives at the hearing and presented an unflattering public relations picture for the administration.
One mother from Texas showed an X-ray of an asthmatic child’s lungs, which she said had been damaged by poor air quality exacerbated by the release of the gas. Another mother from Pennsylvania explained how her daughter carries around a personal air monitor that often goes off when she is at school, which is within half a mile of 22 wells. Religious leaders told EPA officials they should be ashamed.
“How can anyone with any moral sensibility possibly believe that knowingly doing harm to children when the same could be avoided is acceptable?” asked the Rev. Alison Cornish of the advocacy group Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light. “It would be unconscionable not to uphold this rule.”
Reversing course on methane was not supposed to be so challenging for Trump. The rules at issue were completed late in the Obama administration and were repeatedly pilloried by the oil and gas industry as an unnecessary nuisance. Republican leaders had left the impression that Congress would act fast to scrap the rules on public land, which were still subject to congressional review when Trump took office.
“Even as U.S. oil and natural gas production has surged, methane emissions have declined significantly,” said Howard Feldman, senior director for regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, while testifying Monday. “The last thing we need are more duplicative and costly regulations.”
But the fierce public opposition reflects how many Americans are affected by the rules during this era of booming natural gas production. The intensity of it moved lawmakers to waver, and the administration found itself battling alone.
More than 200,000 Americans, nearly a quarter of them children, live within half a mile of the 18,000 oil and gas facilities subject to the rule, which requires that companies install equipment to trap the gas and turn it into electricity, according to a new study by FracTracker Alliance, which analyzes data for advocacy groups.
With the administration on the defensive following the court ruling blocking the EPA from suspending the methane rules, attorneys general in California and New Mexico attacked Trump’s methane rollback on another front. They filed suit Wednesday against the Department of Interior, saying the administration has no authority to delay enforcement of the separate methane rules on public land that Congress failed to rescind.
In California, there are 7,000 oil and gas wells on public land, producing about 14 billion barrels of oil and 7 billion cubic feet of gas, according to the lawsuit, which charges the administration is depriving states of royalties they are entitled when energy companies capture and sell methane, as required by the new rule.
The suit notes that 95% of drilling on public land takes place in Kern County, home to four of the country’s top-producing oil fields and a place suffering from severe air pollution, which the attorneys general argue would be eased by more aggressive containment of methane. But it also points to how imperiled California has become by climate change, noting the state’s water supply is in decline, its beaches are eroding and its smog is increasing. The suit says the state is committed to addressing such issues under current climate law but that its aggressive effort is being undermined by Washington’s refusal to act.
The administration’s plans are also threatening to undermine state environmental laws in states where Republicans hold power. Colorado, Ohio and Wyoming have all passed laws requiring energy firms to contain more methane — and in all of those places, there are energy companies eager to see competitors across state lines subject to the same rules they are.
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An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of the Rev. Alison Cornish.