Reporters and editors don’t especially like big, boring problems – they can be difficult to explain, taking up a lot of words and lacking dramatic photos and illustrations. So kudos to Slate for pulling out this new EPA rule nugget that actually matters – a lot.
But the new methane rule goes beyond merely undoing the damage of the Trump years. The proposal is broader than its Obama-era predecessors, and once finalized, will apply to hundreds of thousands of previously unregulated emission sources, like wells, storage tanks, and compressor stations. That is because unlike the prior standards, Biden’s rule will cover equipment of all ages. EPA thus avoids a key conceptual error that has undercut agency initiatives for over five decades under administrations of both parties: The old rules regulated only new facilities, while exempting older ones from emission limits. In contrast, Biden’s rule covers new and old emitters alike.
And methane, the primary ingredient in natural gas, is a big problem. The gas has a startlingly powerful greenhouse effect when released directly into the atmosphere, trapping 86 times more heat over a 20-year period than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide. As a result, while methane accounts for only 16 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is responsible for almost a third of current, human-caused warming. And here in the United States, oil and gas installations are the largest industrial source of methane, due both to leaks and intentional venting during the production process.
The Obama administration recognized the need to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector back in 2016 and crafted regulations to do so. But those restrictions applied only to equipment constructed in 2015 or later, leaving the vast majority of the sector’s sources and emissions uncontrolled.
This story was troublingly familiar. Regulating new sources of pollution strictly and existing sources laxly or not at all is known as “grandfathering.” The EPA has engaged in the practice before, with disastrous results. Indeed, we wrote an entire book about the terrible consequences of exempting existing power plants from 1970s emission limits on soot- and smog-forming pollutants.
On the subject of other troublesome old mistakes, the EPA had no comment about toxic emissions emanating from all the crazy uncles still out there. Sources say they continue to study the issue.