On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported, the Environmental Protection Agency will announce a new plan to deregulate methane emissions by the fossil fuel industry. The EPA's plan continues the rollback of moderate Obama-era policies, eliminating requirements that the industry monitor and limit methane leaks from newly constructed wells, tanks, and pipelines; it would also pause efforts to regulate existing sites.
While methane, the primary ingredient in natural gas, only accounts for 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse emissions, it is around 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, meaning that it heats the atmosphere significantly more quickly than CO2. (Some scientific estimates indicate that it is about 80 times more potent than CO2 in the two decades after it first enters the air, though it doesn’t stick around as long.) According to the American Meteorological Society, record levels of greenhouse gases were released in 2018, and a NASA study released in January found that the contribution of fracking to a recent spike in methane levels was "substantially larger" than previously thought; likewise, a Cornell University study released earlier this month found the "chemical fingerprints" of fracking all over the methane spike.
Not that any of this has deterred the Trump administration. "The purpose of this rule is to get to the fundamental basis of whether [methane] should have been regulated in the first place," Anne Idsal, the acting assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air and Radiation, told the Journal. "It’s not about whether we’re doing the maximum we can or should do to deal with" climate change, she continued. "I don’t see that there’s going to be some big climate concern here."
And why would she? In 2017, Idsal, who comes from a very well-connected political family in Texas, told the Texas Observer that the climate "has been changing since the dawn of time, well before humans ever inhabited the Earth." It's possible that human activity has had "some type of impact on climate change," she said. "I just don’t know the extent of that." In this, she was echoing Andrew Wheeler, current head of the EPA and a former lobbyist for Murray Energy, the largest private coal company in the country. "I believe that man has an impact on the climate, but what’s not completely understood is what the impact is," he said during his confirmation hearing.
The industry response to the Trump administration's methane deregulation has been mixed. Massive lobbying groups like the American Petroleum Institute and smaller oil and gas companies welcome the change, the New York Times reported, while large companies like Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and BP are more ambivalent—likely not out of any great concern for the millions of people displaced by rising sea levels, droughts, and rampant wildfires, but rather out of fear that deregulation could undermine efforts to market methane and natural gas as a cleaner energy source than coal or oil. How very humanitarian of them.
Brendan O'Connor is a freelance journalist working on a book about immigration and the far right for Haymarket.