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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However, the Obama administration's figures could be outdated, as the rate of methane leaks in the U.S. is likely much higher than previously thought.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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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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