Who’s clamoring for more methane in the atmosphere?

Why the Trump administration’s latest high-profile environmental rollback is wrong

By Ross Sherman

In today’s national political climate, it can seem that everything — no matter how big or small — is controversial. But here’s an idea that isn’t: our environment is worth protecting.

I’m willing to bet, whether you’re talking to someone from Maine, Alabama, Texas, California, or anywhere else in the country, nearly everyone would agree that having cleaner air to breathe, cleaner water to drink, and a safer environment for their kids and grandkids to grow up and play in is a good thing.

When you dig a little deeper into that simple, noncontroversial idea, the polling bears it out as well — including the fact that nearly 60 percent of Americans think that the environment should take priority over economic growth.

That makes it all the more disappointing that, despite warnings from scientists and popular opinion, the Trump administration has repeatedly taken aim at policies and regulations that protect our environment. In June of 2017, the president announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, a serious abdication of world leadership at a time when we’re seeing record high temperatures, disastrous wildfires, and increasingly severe hurricanes and flooding. In July, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed rolling back the Clean Car Standards, a policy that would cut future global warming pollution more than any other federal policy. On top of those misguided plans, last month, the EPA proposed rolling back the Clean Power Plan, which will lead to more air pollution, more severe climate impacts, and up to 1,400 more deaths a year.

Those are just the most prominent anti-environmental moves by this administration. In total, since Trump’s inauguration, the federal government has overturned — or is in the process of rolling back — a whopping 76 environmental rules. Other deleterious rollbacks include lifting a freeze on new coal leases on federal lands, opening up nearly all of America’s waters to offshore drilling, and approving the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines.

Last week, the Trump administration made yet another move, finalizing new rules that will make it significantly easier to release methane into the atmosphere. More specifically, a new EPA rule will weaken a requirement that companies monitor and repair methane leaks, and a new Department of the Interior rule will repeal a restriction on the intentional venting and “flaring,” or burning, of methane from drilling operations.

I can’t imagine that a large constituency of Americans are clamoring for more methane in the atmosphere.

Even though methane represents just nine percent of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is 25 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. Estimates say that the oil and gas industry is responsible for about a third of all methane pollution. What’s more, a study published earlier this year found that we have been severely underestimating the amount of methane released from oil and gas operations. Rolling back these rules and policies will release more heat-trapping methane gas into the atmosphere, making climate change and its effects worse.

The bottom line is that as a country and planet, scientists say that we need to stop burning fossil fuels by midcentury at the latest to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. This move, like many before it, takes us in precisely the wrong direction.

It’s important to note that many of these higher-profile environmental rollbacks, including the new methane rules, aren’t final. They need to go through a rule-making process, public comment period, and pass legal muster (New Mexico and California have already sued the administration). But that process delays what precious time we still have to take action to stall climate change, when we are, by most predictions, running out of it.

On the positive side, it’s also important to recognize that, despite what’s happening at the federal level, significant and bold action is happening at the state and local level. A bipartisan mix of sixteen states, and Puerto Rico, have joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, pledging to support the Paris Agreement. 280 cities and counties have pledged to uphold Paris targets as well. Hawaii and California, plus 82 cities and towns, have committed to or already have reached 100 percent renewable electricity, energy or both. And that list isn’t even the whole picture: College campuses, businesses and other institutions are also stepping up and filling the climate leadership void.

Regardless of who you voted for in the last presidential election, you certainly weren’t voting to make the environment more dangerous and less livable. Climate change doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat, a Republican or an Independent.