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Trump Administration Rolls Back Obama-Era Restrictions On Methane Emissions


Today, the Trump administration rolled back another environmental rule. This one was aimed at reducing climate-warming methane emissions. The oil and gas industry is the largest source of those emissions in the U.S. And yet some big oil companies wanted to keep the rule in place. NPR's Jeff Brady is covering this story.

Hi, Jeff.


SHAPIRO: Why did the Obama administration create this rule in the first place about methane emissions back in 2016?

BRADY: There's a lot of concern about methane. It's the main ingredient in natural gas. And when it's burned, it's cleaner than other fossil fuels. But when it escapes into the atmosphere unburned - say, from a leaky valve at a well drilling site - it's a very potent greenhouse gas. It has more than 80 times the climate-warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years it's in the atmosphere.

So under the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency required oil and gas companies to monitor and limit methane leaks, first to newer wells and eventually to thousands of wells installed before 2015, also. That's why some oil companies, especially smaller ones, oppose the rule. They said it's too costly. Now the Trump administration is siding with those companies and rolling back the requirement. It says that they'll save those companies up to about $19 million a year in compliance costs.

SHAPIRO: Is the flip side of that cost-saving an acceptance that methane emissions are going to rise?

BRADY: Yeah. Yeah. The administration echoes an industry argument and says oil companies have an incentive to stop methane from leaking because that's the product that they sell. And the industry already has a voluntary program to reduce methane emissions. The administration also says the Obama EPA rule that it - they say it was duplicative. They say methane can already be regulated under other rules. But environmentalists say methane is such a problem that it needs special attention. Here's Peter Zalzal. He's with the group Environmental Defense Fund.

PETER ZALZAL: Reducing methane emissions is one of the fastest, one of the most low-cost and most effective ways that we can combat climate change in the near term.

BRADY: And he says there are side benefits to that old rule that the Obama administration had passed because it also reduces other pollution that harms people's health.

SHAPIRO: That's what we would expect to hear from an environmental group. But explain why some big oil companies also want to stick with the 2016 rule even if it does cost them money to comply.

BRADY: Yeah, and these are companies - names we recognize - ExxonMobil, BP, Shell. They have a lot invested in natural gas, and they worry that if methane leaks continue to be a problem, that could undermine their arguments that natural gas is a cleaner-burning fossil fuel than, say, coal. The president of Shell in the U.S., Gretchen Watkins, told us in a statement that she finds it frustrating and disappointing the administration is rolling back these regulations. Her companies and others plan to continue their efforts to reduce methane emissions, and some states also have their own programs underway.

SHAPIRO: So if states and big companies are still focused on stopping these leaks, is the Trump administration's rollback going to have much of an effect?

BRADY: It likely will, especially because there won't be that requirement to go back and stop leaks at older wells. Environmental Defense Fund calculates the effect would be about the same as adding greenhouse gas emissions from 100 coal-fired power plants every year by rolling back these regulations. But there are two caveats here. One is the rollback will be challenged in court. And second, if Joe Biden wins in November and Democrats take control of the Senate, this methane rule could be reversed again.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Jeff Brady, thank you.

BRADY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.