The Senate took an important step on Wednesday to limit emissions and meet its commitments to curb global warming by voting to limit the unbridled release into the atmosphere of methane molecules, which are often a by-product of natural gas production.
The vote between 52 and 42 will reintroduce the new oil and natural gas performance standards, a handful of Obama-era methane emission regulations that were withdrawn by former President Donald Trump in August 2020. The move was supported by all Senate Democrats as well as Republicans Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), who has opposed GOP efforts to deregulate methane emissions in the past; Lindsey Graham (R-SC); and Rob Portman (R-OH). The rule is expected to be picked up and passed by the House of Representatives in May.
The standards alone will not be enough to meet President Joe Biden’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent compared to 2005 by 2030 – a goal that should help reduce global warming to 1 this century. Keeping 5 degrees Celsius – but it’s an important step in meeting that commitment as methane is increasingly seen as a driver of climate change. The vote was not backed by 10 Republicans – the number of Democrats needed, aside from changes to the filibuster, to pass more comprehensive climate legislation – but the fact that three GOP Senators signed suggests that Democrats have at least some hope of winning Republicans over at least some climate-related problems.
This rule change only required 51 votes in favor, as the Democrats used the Congressional Review Act, which allows lawmakers to reverse laws passed by previous administrations in their lame duck periods by a simple majority in any Chamber of Congress do. It’s filibuster-safe. Trump’s Methane Ordinance, passed by the EPA last summer, is the first rule Democrats use the legislative process that Republicans used 14 times in the first 16 weeks of Trump’s presidency four years ago.
When it comes to oil and natural gas pipelines, methane leaks are alarmingly common and are a major contributor to the methane currently in the atmosphere. Obama’s regulations, passed in 2016, should change that. They asked the energy companies to monitor the pipelines for leaks and to plug any found. Bringing these regulations back is “absolutely sensible,” said Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM), a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and co-founder of the resolution, at a press conference on Tuesday.
In particular, some energy companies, including BP, Shell and Exxon, have been shown to be on board with increased methane regulation. Heinrich said that’s because following his rules would actually save you money: Untouched pipes and clogged leaks lead to higher yields and higher profits, so offsetting the cost of securing infrastructure.
And Dan Zimmerle, a senior research fellow at Colorado State University’s Energy Institute, said companies also value methane regulations because they lead to increased accountability and make methane – a major component of natural gas that is often extracted as an alternative to coal. seem safer to consume than it actually is.
“The biggest threat to natural gas is not the regulatory costs, but the reputation of natural gas,” said Zimmerle.
Republicans, with the exception of Collins, Graham, and Portman, have so far opposed all attempts at energy regulation, including this one, arguing that there are other, less regulatory and more business-friendly ways to take care of the climate. However, the Democrats argue that greenhouse gas regulation is vital – and that without it, the United States cannot address the dangers of climate change.
It briefly explains why reducing methane emissions is critical
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer described the Senate move as “one of the most important votes this Congress has not only cast, but has been cast in the last decade on our fight against global warming.”
Schumer is right in many ways.
Greenhouse gases inhibit the free movement of the sun’s rays, which warm the earth. Gases like carbon dioxide and methane absorb and trap the radiation that rises from the earth’s surface towards space. If emissions continue to rise at current rates, the atmosphere could warm 3 to 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The results could be disastrous.
The problem with methane is that it traps heat incredibly effectively – about 25 times more effectively than carbon dioxide, according to the EPA. While it only accounts for about 16 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the way it traps heat means that any significant reduction would likely have a positive impact on climate change.
Limiting emissions, as the rules would change, helps address the fact that the presence of methane in the atmosphere is increasing exponentially as a by-product of human activities such as agriculture and power generation. Even as the world collapsed amid the Covid-19 pandemic, carbon dioxide and methane emissions hit record levels. And it is possible that they will continue to rise when the countries reopen.
All of this makes methane reduction a key to keeping global warming as low as possible. A 2021 report in Environmental Research Letters found that concerted efforts to reduce man-made methane emissions could reduce global warming by up to 30 percent.
More methane regulation is needed
Given the current severity of methane emissions, many scientists fear that the Obama-era regulations will never be enough to noticeably curb methane emissions.
Robert Howarth, Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology at Cornell University, was one of the scientists invited to brief White House officers on methane emissions in May 2016, just before the regulations were drafted. Howarth said one problem with the Obama rules is that they lack mechanisms to verify that energy companies are complying.
“Methane is a colorless, odorless gas. You can’t see it with the naked eye, ”Howarth said. “A layman cannot see – I cannot see – whether the device is leaking or not. If you don’t have independent resources from professionals to review emissions, just rely on the industry to say, “We’ll take care of it”. This does not work for me. “
Howarth argued it was a gap that today’s technology could fill. Microsatellites tuned to measure methane, managed by and owned by global governments and private companies, can search for untested and unconnected methane emissions. This technology did not exist four years ago.
Zimmerle, the Colorado researcher, said the development was promising, but said, “There are other places like gas schemas or a whole host of other specific sources where everyone knows the emissions are greater, but for whatever reason , it’s not about attention. “
There have been other, similar criticisms of the limits of Obama-era rules. For example, some experts have determined that the rules only apply to new extraction sites, so older, leaky sites can continue to operate.
As Vox senior reporter Rebecca Leber wrote, the Biden administration has recognized that it is not enough just to bring back old regulations that do not go far enough. How exactly the gaps will be closed and the target achieved is unclear, but the White House has promised to release details by September. In the meantime, however, changing the rules means taking a small step forward – and a little less methane in the air.