There’s an important set of numbers included in the Trump administration’s announcement Thursday that it plans to kill Obama-era requirements that oil and gas companies prevent methane from leaking out of new wells, pipelines and storage facilities. The proposed rollback, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, would save the $280-billion industry from $17 million to $19 million a year. Economically speaking, that’s peanuts. So clearly this deregulatory push isn’t about removing an onerous financial burden on an industry.
Rather, it’s rooted in President Trump’s almost visceral dislike for regulations of just about any stripe, as well as his goal of making the United States the world’s dominant producer of oil and gas. Global warming? Air quality? Not his concern.
“The Trump administration recognizes that methane is valuable,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in announcing the move, and therefore that “the industry has an incentive to minimize leaks and maximize its use.” In other words, there’s no need for the government to tell the industry that it ought to do something because, well, it will do it anyway out of its own economic self-interest.
That’s not how the world works. And it fails to strike the right balance between the interests of the oil and gas industry — whose smaller players are agitating for the change even as some of the biggest ones oppose it — and the health and well-being of all the rest of us.
When released into the atmosphere, methane is by some estimates 30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide, though it doesn’t linger as long. But because it has such a pronounced impact in the short term, it is vitally important that humankind minimize methane releases if we are to have any hope of limiting the rise in global temperatures to less than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the goal set in the 2015 Paris climate accord. And, obviously, the proposed rule would make it even more difficult to hold that rise to 1.5 degrees, which many scientists believe is necessary to avoid some of the most devastating consequences of climate change.
The Trump administration dismisses any such concerns. At best it pays lip service to the notion that we need to reduce carbon emissions; most often it just ignores the topic, silences its own scientists and tries to expand the amount of public land available for drilling. This is the road to environmental disaster.
Yet that is precisely what the EPA is supposed to guard against. Trump turned the agency against the best interests of the nation when he named Scott Pruitt, who as Oklahoma attorney general had filed more than a dozen lawsuits challenging the agency’s authority, to be its leader. The president didn’t help matters when he replaced the ethics-challenged Pruitt with Andrew Wheeler, a former industry lobbyist. Foxes and henhouses come to mind.
The rollback of the methane-capture rules is just part of the administration’s attack on industry regulations in general. One of Trump’s first acts as president was to order his regulators to rescind two existing rules for every new rule they wanted to add, a silly and dangerous approach to deregulation. The Brookings Institution is tracking nearly 200 regulations the administration has repealed or is trying to repeal, some with more potentially devastating consequences than others.
If regulations outlive their usefulness, fail to meet the intended goals or have unintended consequences, then it is prudent to revisit them and repeal as necessary. Trump’s two-for-one approach puts quantity ahead of quality.
Trump also issued an early executive order directly targeting the energy sector as part of his Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth agenda, in which he ordered repeal of regulations that potentially “burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources.” Prime among them: oil and gas.
The relentless drive to drill, pump and burn more fossil fuels goes against everything the scientific world is telling us we need to do to avoid the worst effects of global warming. We’re already seeing the results of a warming world with the shrinking Arctic ice cap, larger and more intense storms and floods, and the wildfires that have ravaged California. Failing to recognize the human role in these events, and to continue to push politics that make them worse instead of better, requires a deliberately distorted view of reality. Like a funhouse mirror, except there’s nothing funny about it.