Obama's Methane Emissions Plan Puts Oil, Coal and Gas Industries on Notice
Methane emissions have decreased by 11 percent in the past 24 years, but they could pick back up by 2030 if actions aren't taken to combat them. That's why the powerful greenhouse gas is the center of a newly announced strategy by the White House.
Released Friday as a new layer to President Barack Obama's Climate Action Plan, the methane emissions strategy aims to bring economic and health benefits to the country while fighting climate change by removing a gas from the atmosphere that, by the ton, has about 20 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide.
“When it comes to preventing the most serious impacts of climate change, we don’t have any time to waste," Earthjustice Vice President of Policy and Legislation Marty Hayden said in a statement. "Today’s important announcement by the White House signals that the President is poised to take action on several fronts."
The strategy identified a few key methane emissions sources that the country needs to focus on:
- Landfills: This summer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will propose updated standards to reduce methane from new landfills while taking public comment about possibly updating standards for existing landfills. The EPA's Landfill Methane Outreach Program will attempt to partner with industry leaders who use methane waste to power their communities.
- Coal Mines: Next month, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will gather public input on the development of a program for the capture, sale or disposal of waste mine methane on lands leased by the government. The EPA will continue to partner with industry through a voluntary program to reduce what it calls "institutional, technical, regulatory and financial barriers to beneficial methane recovery and use at coal mines."
- Agriculture: In June, in partnership with the dairy industry, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), EPA and the Department of Energy (DOE) will lay out a “Biogas Roadmap” to reduce the dairy sector's greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020.
- Oil and Gas: The EPA will solicit input from independent experts on how best to pursue further methane reductions from these sources. If EPA decides to develop additional regulations, it will complete those regulations by the end of 2016. The EPA will also work with the industry to expand voluntary efforts to reduce methane emissions through the Natural Gas STAR program.
Lauren Pagel, policy director of Earthworks, says the country's methane strategy will have the best chance of working if it requires the EPA to directly regulate methane pollution from fracking. In Colorado, where there are more than 51,000 fracking wells, groups recently launched a state ballot initiative that would give residents control over whether to allow fracking in their communities.
"Unfortunately, when it comes to the downsides of fracking-enabled oil and gas development, so far the Obama administration has had its head in the sand," Pagel said. "We hope that this plan signals a shift for this administration, putting their words into actions to limit the harms from oil and gas production.
"But, no matter how stringent the methane pollution controls, they are no substitute for dropping dirty fossil fuels like fracked gas and replacing them with truly clean alternatives like conservation and renewables."
The plan also calls for new methane measurement technologies and an additional $8 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to add towers, enhanced measurement capabilities and stronger aircraft-based frequency for the nation's network of methane monitoring sites.
Julian Boggs of Environment America said he hopes the plan will grow to include tougher laws for those who are not reducing methane in accordance with the national plan, as well as better addressing of drinking water, forest acres and other resources that are damaged by methane fracking.
"The president needs to drop his ‘all-of-the-above’ rhetoric," Boggs added. "This ‘whatever’ approach is not only wrong-headed policy, it is a misuse of the president’s bully pulpit that distracts from the need to move away from all fossil fuels to a clean energy future.”
Meanwhile, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) President Fred Krupp applauded Friday's announcement.
“This strategy has the potential to deliver the federal regulatory oversight that is needed to complement state efforts and make sure that all of the oil and gas industry meets basic, commonsense standards to deploy readily available technologies," he said in a statement. "The most important work of turning this strategy into action lies ahead, but we are confident that the case for action is strong and will prove out in the end."
Earlier this month, the EDF and ICF International concluded that the onshore oil and gas industry could collectively reduce methane emissions by at least 40 percent below 2018 projections. In a joint report, the organizations said that could be accomplished by adopting nearly a dozen emissions control strategies across 19 different sources within five years.
The most economical of these measures could save the industry a combined $164 million per year.
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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