Obama-Era Methane Gas Emissions Limits Reinstated

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), joined by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), speaks at the Capitol Photo Source: Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), speak at a press conference about regulations to reduce methane pollution outside the Capitol on April 28, 2021. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The Senate voted on April 28, 2021 to restore Obama-era limits on methane leaks from gas and oil operations. This is big progress for the Biden administration’s climate goals.

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass), who was a co-sponsor of the bill with Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Angus King (I-ME), said, “We have to stop lighting the matches of methane pollution.”

“This is a very big deal,” Schumer said in a briefing before the Senate vote. “Methane is one of the most poisonous things we can put in our atmosphere.”

The White House issued a statement in support of the vote, calling methane “a potent climate-disrupting greenhouse gas that is responsible for approximately one-third of the global warming,” and went on to say that “addressing methane pollution” is “an urgent and essential step.”

President Biden said limiting methane emissions is key to his promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. to at least 50% of their 2005 levels by the end of the decade.

The Senate was divided on the issue, but the bill passed with a 52-42 vote. It should pass the House with little difficulty. This is the first vote for which the Democrats used the 1996 Congressional Review Act to reverse a federal regulation, though Republicans used it fourteen times to overturn Obama-era regs they found objectionable, including once to eliminate a rule that prevented coal-mining operations from dumping waste into nearby waterways.

Using the Congressional Review Act, legislators can nullify any regulation within 60 days after it’s been enacted. To use the Act to revoke a regulation means that no regulation that is “substantially the same” can be adopted in the future. The Act requires only a simple majority vote and prohibits Senate filibusters, so it’s the fastest way to overturn an existing federal rule. Without the Act, overturning a rule could take at least a year.

Dan Grossman is director of legislative and regulatory affairs at an advocacy group called the Environmental Defense Fund. Of the bill, he said, “Once the president signs it, this will be the first move by Congress and this administration to actually put climate policy back on the books.”

Three Republican senators voted for the bill: Rob Portman of Ohio, Susan Collins of Maine, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Schumer called Wednesday’s vote a hopeful move toward bipartisanship on climate change. Graham, a Trump ally, said this about his vote in favor of restoring the methane rule: “I think it’s just unnecessary emissions that they can do something about, and they’ll need to do it.”

Drew Shindell, an earth science professor at Duke University, said, “This is a really encouraging step because methane is such an important greenhouse gas to reduce.” Of the vote, he said, “It sends a signal that the administration is serious about this.”

The EPA adopted rules in 2016 requiring gas and oil companies to curb methane emissions and leaks from their operations. The Trump administration undid those rules last summer. This new vote is a step toward “reversing the reversal.”

If the bill is enacted, the rules to be restored would require companies to perform checks for methane leaks from storage tanks, pipelines, and other equipment installed after 2015 every six months. If they find leaks, they’d have 30 days to plug them.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) called the vote a “repeal of a repeal.” This action restores the original EPA rule. Senate Majority Leader Charles E Schumer (D-NY) said, “We can undo that damage and undo it quickly.”

Methane emissions have been soaring in recent years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported a “significant jump” in 2020, “the largest annual increase recorded since systematic measurements began in 1983.”

Nearly 30% of U.S. methane emissions come from the oil and gas industry. Fossil fuel lobbyists and smaller oil and gas companies have insisted that methane regulations are too expensive.

Lee Fuller, executive vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said, “Our issue is not with the need to manage emissions. The biggest impact of regulating existing sources will inevitably fall on low-production wells. That’s where the magnitude of the impact’s going to fall. So the question is, what is it going to look like?”

Fuller says his group will spend the upcoming months trying to show the Biden administration that the next group of methane rules should offer customized policies for small independent operators and giant oil production farms. He said, “Our objective will be to try to make sure the regulatory process distinguishes between large and small wells with appropriate regulations for each.”

Shindell said of the quantity of methane emissions, “It’s moving really rapidly in the wrong direction.” He and other international scientists found, during a United Nations assessment, that “reducing human-caused methane emissions is one of the most cost-effective strategies to rapidly reduce the rate of warming” and meet climate targets for the world. He said, “We can do a lot on methane with existing technologies.”

Using those existing technologies, a no-holds-barred push could cut methane emissions in half by 2030, per a study published in a journal called Environmental Research Letters. Reductions like that could have a critical effect on the global effort to keep warming to below two degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit), which is a focal point of the Paris climate accord.

Some Republicans claim that restoring the old rule isn’t needed. “The market is pushing the industry to lower its methane emissions,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “The resolution we have in front of us today is nothing more than a public posturing.”

Biden has taken aim at 100 of Trump’s environmental and energy policies since taking office, and he has reversed 28 of them to this point. Most weren’t regulations but agency policies or executive orders. In some cases, federal court rulings have nullified rules from the Trump-era.

Major companies like Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon, and BP have endorsed the effort to restore the Obama-era rule, as have some of the industry’s trade associations. “Regulating methane emissions is essential to preventing leaks throughout the industry and protecting the environment,” according to Mary Streett, BP’s senior vice president for U.S. advocacy. These groups promote natural gas and declare that it is a cleaner fuel than coal in the nation’s power plants, as it produces about half as much carbon dioxide when burned.

A spokesperson from the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade group for the oil and gas industry, said they’re working with the Biden administration “in support of the direct regulation of methane for new and existing sources through a new rule making process.”

“We have an opportunity to build on the progress the industry has made in driving down methane emissions through technological advancement, and we are committed to finding common ground on cost-effective government policies,” said the spokesperson.

Devon Energy, a natural gas producer in Oklahoma, tweeted, “We believe a meaningful reduction in methane emissions is essential to managing the risks of climate change. While the Congressional Review Act is an extraordinary legislative tool that should be used judiciously and with caution, we support the ongoing effort in Congress to chart a path toward a durable framework for regulating methane at the federal level that encourages innovation and operational flexibility.”

Other climate initiatives may not have the same level of industry support. But this vote can be seen as the beginnings of a stronger legislative push on climate, and one that can help Biden achieve his climate goals.

Most of Biden’s intended climate change policies are about carbon dioxide reduction. Carbon dioxide is produced by burning fossil fuels and is the most damaging, and most abundant, greenhouse gas, though methane is a close second.

Schumer said, “It is one of the first things we’ve done to fight global warming. It will certainly not be the last.”

Lynda Keever, J.D.
Lynda Keever, J.D.
Lynda Keever is a freelance writer and editor based in Asheville, NC. She is a licensed attorney, musician, traveler and adventurer. She brings her love of discovery and passion for details to her writing and to the editing of the works of others.