The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it would roll back methane emissions rules and modify national performance standards for the oil and gas industry. A former Obama-era EPA official now based in Indiana says the consequences could significantly worsen the impact of climate change in the state.
“Methane is about 25 times more potent a global warming pollutant than carbon dioxide, so even if the amounts submitted are less, it can have an extremely significant effect,” said Janet McCabe, director of the Environmental Resilience Institute at Indiana University. “So, we’re in a situation where we’re already seeing the effects of climate change. In Indiana, we’re seeing warmer temperatures, we’re seeing stronger storms, we’re seeing more flooding. Every bit of greenhouse gas that goes into the atmosphere is a bit that will contribute to the continued development of these kinds of changes to our climate and the impact that that’s having on the economy.”
The EPA expects companies, including some in Indiana, will save tens of millions of dollars every year by deregulating the transmission and storage of oil and gas and removing emission limits for methane, a primary component of natural gas.
“The Trump administration recognizes that methane is valuable, and the industry has an incentive to minimize leaks and maximize its use,” said EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler. “Since 1990, natural gas production in the United States has almost doubled while methane emissions across the natural gas industry have fallen by nearly 15%. Our regulations should not stifle this innovation and progress.”
Methane is more than 25 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, and makes up about 10.2% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in the U.S.
Critics of the rule, including McCabe, say the EPA’s aim may not be to encourage innovation but to set the legal groundwork so that it has less power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. That would be a boon to the fossil fuel industry, who would have to spend less money on pollution and emissions controls.
“The EPA is taking the position that the previous administration interpreted the law incorrectly and that it doesn’t have the legal authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate methane specifically,” said McCabe, who also served as EPA acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation during the Obama administration. “Clearly there are many people that disagree with that as a matter of law, but what it means is that EPA is using a legal argument to tie its hands and have a reason to not be able to regulate a pollutant that is associated with climate change.”
Methane occurs naturally in the environment. The gas is emitted from livestock and through other agricultural practices. It is also emitted by natural wetlands and through the decay of organic waste in solid waste landfills.
But, according to the EPA, more than half of all methane in the U.S. is emitted from the production, processing, storage, transmission and distribution of natural gas and the production, refinement, transportation and storage of crude oil.
“Oil and gas development have a lot of different pieces,” said McCabe. “So, there’s lots and lots of opportunities for leakage of different air pollutants, including methane.”
METHANE IN INDIANA
While coal is still king in Indiana, natural gas is becoming more widely used in the state.
The state of Indiana produces about 6.2 trillion British thermal units, or Btu, of natural gas yearly but consumes about 120 times that amount, about 748 trillion Btu, a year.
Three-fifths of the state’s households depend on natural gas for home heating. Several utility companies in Indiana, including Northern Indiana Public Service Company and Indianapolis Power & Light, have begun transitioning at least some of their coal-fired power plants to natural gas.
More widespread use of natural gas means more opportunities for methane leakage, but emissions rules put in place during the Obama administration actually decreased the amount of methane emissions detected.
According to the best available EPA greenhouse gas data, 6.6 million metric tons of methane were reported in 2015.
Methane emissions numbers fell the two following years after the implementation of new rules. EPA data shows 5.94 million metric tons of methane were reported in 2016 and 5.86 million metric tons of methane emissions were reported in 2017.
The EPA’s new proposal would mean methane levels would be likely to increase in the state and across the country.
CLIMATE CHANGE IN INDIANA
Climate change has happened naturally throughout the Earth’s history. According to NASA, there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat within the last 650,000 years.
But, the rate at which our climate has changed since the mid-20th century has led a vast majority of scientists to believe our current warming trend is extremely likely to be caused by human activity.
More than 100 experts from about 50 public and private organizations in Indiana worked together to see if and how climate change has affected the state.
The Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment researchers compiled several reports detailing how climate change affects state and local interests.
They found that in the last century, the temperature in Indiana has warmed by 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit and is expected to rise about 5 more degrees by the mid 21st century. Climate change is also affecting precipitation levels, air quality, growing seasons and many other aspects of Indiana life.
Increased methane emissions could help make the effects of climate change worse.
“This administration is making it clearer and clearer day by day that they are not motivated in any way to address climate change pollutants,” said McCabe.
The Trump administration has tried to fight methane emissions rule since its early days.
In 2017, administration officials attempted to delay the implementation of an Obama-era rule that limited methane emissions from oil and natural gas operations on private land for two years.
The EPA also concurrently withdrew a 2015 request that oil and gas producers report data on their methane emissions. That means methane emissions levels will no longer be accurately tracked.
Several environmental advocacy groups said they would launch legal challenges to the Trump administration’s latest proposal.
“The Trump administration is once again putting industry interests over people and public health by gutting these common-sense emissions standards,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Ballo in a statement. “The rollback would only further exacerbate a climate crisis that is already near a point of no return. We cannot afford to go back. We’ve successfully sued the Trump administration in their attempt to dismantle methane emissions standards in the past, and we’ll sue again to keep these standards in place.”