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Trump Lets Fracking Companies Release More Climate-Warming Methane

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Oil and gas companies flare natural gas that cannot be processed or sold. Varodrig / Wikimedia Commons

As expected, the U.S. Department of the Interior on Tuesday released a final rule that reverses Obama-era restrictions on methane emissions from oil and gas operations.

President Obama's 2016 methane waste rule, which never went into effect, required fossil fuel companies on tribal and public lands to reduce emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that's about 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. It called on drilling operators to capture leaking and vented methane and to update their leak-detection equipment.


Had it been finalized, as The New York Times noted, it would have cut methane from the oil and gas sector by as much as 35 percent and helped the U.S. reach emissions-reduction targets under the Paris agreement.

But the Trump administration said Tuesday that many parts of the 2016 rule were "unnecessarily burdensome" on the private sector, and found that it overlapped with existing state, tribal and federal regulations.

The fossil fuel industry cautioned that the Obama rule could cost as much as $279 million to implement and would hinder production, according to The New York Times.

The Obama administration estimated their "common-sense" rule would avoid nearly 170,000 tons of methane emissions annually and save the U.S. between $115 to $188 million per year by allowing oil and gas operators to sell recovered natural gas, in addition to the environmental benefits of reducing methane emissions.

However, the Obama administration's figures could be outdated, as the rate of methane leaks in the U.S. is likely much higher than previously thought. A recent study published in Science found that U.S. oil and natural gas operations release 60 percent more methane than currently estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Yearly methane emissions from the oil and gas industry total 13 million metric tons (approximately 14.3 million U.S. tons), mostly from leaks—an amount of natural gas that could heat 10 million homes.

The Obama rule was also widely supported by the public. A 2017 poll found 81 percent of Western voters surveyed said they supported leaving the methane waste rule in place.

Environmental organizations condemned the Trump administration's latest environmental rollback and criticized Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for siding with oil and gas interests.

"Actions like these continue to show that this Interior Department and Secretary Zinke are not interested in managing and sustaining our public lands for generations to come but are instead focused on satisfying the wish-list of oil and gas developers," The Wilderness Society president Jamie Williams said in a statement received by EcoWatch.

In a press release, the Sierra Club warned that methane is not only a potent climate pollutant, but the gas is also often accompanied by toxic air pollutants such as benzene that could threaten the health of residents who live nearby oil and gas operations.

Lena Moffitt, senior director of the Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign, condemned the Trump administration's "ongoing assault on clean air, public lands, our health, and our climate."

"Millions of Americans and diverse stakeholders weighed in when this commonsense standard was developed, and the only people who want to see it weakened are fossil fuel industry executives who don't want to be held accountable for the threats their outdated and reckless practices pose to the public," Moffitt said in the press release. "We've already successfully defended these protections in court and in Congress, and the fight won't stop here."

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