EPA Expected to Allow More Methane Emissions From Oil and Gas Industry
In the coming days, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to use its power to roll back yet another Obama-era environmental protection meant to curb air pollution and slow the climate crisis.
This new rollback concerns methane, a potent greenhouse gas destructive to the earth's atmosphere. The EPA is expected to make the announcement on Friday that it is ending a stricture put in place by the previous administration that curbed the amount of methane that could be released in oil and gas exploration, as The Wall Street Journal reported.
Since the rule is not official yet, anonymous officials at the agency told The Wall Street Journal that the rollback will scrap the new rules that required oil and gas producers to have systems, checks and processes in place to identify and address methane leaks on their rigs.
The rollbacks do not end there. The Wall Street Journal also reported that the EPA will also end its oversight of ozone pollutants and emissions from pipelines and storage sites. Additionally, the agency will reduce its requirement for monitoring and reporting certain pollutants.
The EPA's decision to end its oversight and slacken regulation may result in an additional 5 million metric tons of methane pollution released into the atmosphere each year.
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that can be 25 times more impactful than carbon dioxide in equal quantities, as The Hill reported. In 2018, it accounted for nearly 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity, mostly from the oil and gas industry, although commercial agriculture and the cattle industry are also large contributors to methane emissions.
As the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) noted, the action would also mean no future action could regulate methane production from oil and gas facilities built before 2015. Their analysis shows that 9.3 million people live within half a mile of one of the older wells that the administration is seeking to leave forever unregulated by the EPA.
"Our federal methane safeguards have been in place since 2016, protecting Americans from unhealthy and climate-damaging pollution. The Trump administration's decision to reverse course is deeply and fundamentally flawed," said EDF lead attorney Peter Zalzal, in a statement. "Eliminating these safeguards would ignore the overwhelming body of scientific evidence documenting the urgent need to reduce methane pollution. And it is also starkly at odds with the broad and diverse set of stakeholders — including some major oil and gas producing companies — that support retaining and strengthening methane safeguards."
The administration is using the decline in demand for oil and gas as a justification for easing the pollution rules. It argues that the rule is needed to free the oil and gas industry from what it calls crippling regulations during an economic slowdown due to the novel coronavirus. However, as The New York Times notes, the weakening of the rule has been in the works for more than a year.
As The New York Times noted, several of the world's major fossil fuel companies actually support the methane rules and do not want to see them relaxed. In a 2019 public comment on a draft of the rule, Joe Ellis, a vice president at BP, urged the EPA "to continue to regulate methane emissions from new sources and to adopt a rule for existing sources. EPA regulation of methane across the value chain is the right thing to do for the environment, will support consistent regulation across the U.S. and can be cost-effectively achieved with new technology."
Furthermore, Exxon urged the EPA in 2018 to maintain core elements of the Obama administration's policy. And Gretchen Watkins, the U.S. chairwoman for Shell, which has urged the Trump administration to regulate methane emissions, said, "The negative impacts of methane have been widely acknowledged for years, so it's frustrating and disappointing to see the administration go in a different direction," as The New York Times reported.
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By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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