Senate Reinstates Obama-Era Controls on Climate-Warming Methane

Source: By Coral Davenport, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, April 29, 2021

Senate Democrats on Wednesday deployed a once-obscure law to resurrect Obama-era regulations on methane that the Trump administration had wiped away.

A gas flare near Coyanosa, Texas, in August. 
Jessica Lutz for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted on Wednesday to effectively reinstate an Obama-era regulation designed to clamp down on emissions of methane, a powerful, climate-warming pollutant that will have to be controlled to meet President Biden’s ambitious climate change promises.

Taking a page from congressional Republicans who in 2017 made liberal use of a once-obscure law to roll back Obama-era regulations, Democrats invoked the law to turn back a Trump methane rule enacted late last summer. That rule had eliminated Obama-era controls on leaks of methane, which seeps from oil and gas wells.

The 52-42 vote was the first time congressional Democrats have used the law, called the Congressional Review Act, which prohibits Senate filibusters and ensures one administration’s last-minute regulations can be swiftly overturned with a simple majority vote in both chambers of Congress. Three Republican senators — Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rob Portman of Ohio — joined Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents to vote for the measure.

Passage of the measure in the House next month is considered pro forma, as is Mr. Biden’s signature. And with Donald J. Trump’s regulation out of the way, the Obama methane rule would go back into force.

That rule, released in 2016, had imposed the first federal limits on methane leaks from oil and gas wells, requiring companies to monitor, plug and capture leaks of methane from new drilling sites.

Mr. Biden has vowed to place climate change at the top of his agenda. He rejoined the Paris climate change agreement, assigned his cabinet heads to enact climate-friendly policies across the government, and included hundreds of billions of dollars in spending on renewable energy projects in an infrastructure package pending before Congress. Last week, Mr. Biden announced at a global climate summit that the United States would cut its greenhouse emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

With the striking of the Trump methane rule, Democrats will have enacted the first legislative step toward that goal.

“Once the president signs it, this will be the first move by Congress and this administration to actually put climate policy back on the books,” said Dan Grossman, director of legislative and regulatory affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group.

In a statement of support for the vote, the White House called methane “a potent climate-disrupting greenhouse gas that is responsible for approximately one-third of the global warming.”

The statement added that “addressing methane pollution” is “an urgent and essential step.”

The Congressional Review Act allows Congress to reverse any executive-branch rule within 60 legislative days of its enactment, but because the president can veto review act measures, the law can be effectively deployed only after a new administration takes control.

Republicans used the procedure to wipe out 14 late-term Obama administration rules in the first 16 weeks of the Trump administration, but Wednesday’s vote was the first time Democrats have used the procedure to undo the policy of a Republican administration. Democrats plan to use the procedure just once more in the coming weeks, before their window to do so expires in late May, with a vote to repeal a labor rule that had made it easier for employers to deny worker claims of employment discrimination.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, called Wednesday’s vote “one of the most important votes, not only that this Congress has cast, but has been cast in the last decade, in terms of our fight against global warming.”

It will be more difficult for Democrats to push through broader climate change legislation — they will need to either muster enough votes from Republicans to reach the 60-vote majority required to overcome a filibuster, or to try to fold climate measures into a proposed infrastructure spending package, and hope they can use a budget rule that allows passage with 51 votes.

Still, Mr. Schumer noted that Wednesday’s vote represented a glimmer of bipartisanship on climate change. Mr. Graham, who has stood as a staunch ally of Mr. Trump, said of his vote to restore the methane rule, “I think it’s just unnecessary emissions that they can do something about, and they’ll need to do it.”

Most Republicans opposed the move to reinstate the regulation, but they were muted in their opposition to reining in methane pollution.

“More regulations are not the answer,” said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy Committee. Mr. Barrasso noted that he had written legislation designed to reduce methane emissions by requiring additional permitting of natural gas pipelines. “Congress should advance solutions like my legislation — not relitigate regulatory fights from the past,” he said.

Senator Steve Daines, Republican of Montana, said, “We need policies that encourage continued innovation, not more bureaucratic regulation.”

Both the scientific understanding of the role that methane plays in driving climate change and the position of the oil and gas industry have shifted since Mr. Obama’s administration first sought to regulate methane pollution. Scientists now see the gas as playing a greater role in the rapid warming of the planet than previously understood, while some major oil and gas companies that fought methane regulations a decade ago now say they welcome, or at least can work with, the return of the methane rules.

Most of Mr. Biden’s proposed climate change policies are designed to reduce carbon dioxide, which is produced by burning fossil fuels and is the most abundant and damaging greenhouse gas.

Methane, which is a close second, is mainly emitted from leaks in oil and gas drilling sites. It lingers in the atmosphere for a shorter period of time than carbon dioxide, but packs a bigger punch while it lasts. By some estimates, methane has 80 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide in its first 20 years in the atmosphere.

A new United Nations report, compiled by an international team of scientists and scheduled to be published next month, is expected to declare that reducing emissions of methane, the main component of natural gas, will need to play a far more vital role in warding off the worst effects of climate change.

The report, a detailed summary of which was viewed by The New York Times, also says that, unless there is significant deployment of unproven technologies capable of pulling greenhouse gases out of the air, expanding the use of natural gas is incompatible with keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a goal of the international Paris Agreement.

Many major oil and gas companies have come out in support of methane regulations: Exxon, Shell and BP had actually urged the Trump administration to keep the Obama methane rules in place. Those companies have invested millions of dollars to promote natural gas as a cleaner fuel than coal in the nation’s power plants, because natural gas produces about half as much carbon dioxide when burned. They fear that unrestricted leaks of methane could undermine that marketing message and hurt demand.

On Wednesday, Vicki Hollub, the chief executive of Occidental Petroleum, an international oil company based in Houston, told a Senate panel that she supported the vote to reinstate the methane regulations.

“We need to have regulation in place to ensure that we have adequate control throughout the industry,” she said.

Devon Energy, an Oklahoma-based natural gas producer, tweeted on Wednesday, “We believe a meaningful reduction in methane emissions is essential to managing the risks of climate change. While the Congressional Review Act is an extraordinary legislative tool that should be used judiciously and with caution, we support the ongoing effort in Congress to chart a path toward a durable framework for regulating methane at the federal level that encourages innovation and operational flexibility.”

Once the Obama methane rules are reinstated, Mr. Biden plans to go further: While the Obama rules require companies to monitor and control methane leaks from new drilling wells, Mr. Biden has directed his Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Michael Regan, to prepare new rules in the coming months that would also require companies to impose controls on methane leaks from existing oil and gas drilling sites.

That prospect raises concerns for small, independent oil companies, which fear that new rules requiring companies to install methane-leak control technology could be accommodated by large companies but could saddle small companies with costs they cannot afford.

“Our issue is not with the need to manage emissions,” said Lee Fuller, executive vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “The biggest impact of regulating existing sources will inevitably fall on low-production wells. That’s where the magnitude of the impact’s going to fall. So the question is, what is it going to look like?”

Mr. Fuller said his group intended to spend the coming months making the case to the Biden administration that the next round of methane rules should offer customized policies that differentiate between the giant oil production farms of companies like Shell and Exxon and the small, two- or three-well operations of independent wildcatters like his members.

“Our objective will be to try to make sure the regulatory process distinguishes between large and small wells with appropriate regulations for each,” he said.

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.