There is reason for hope on federal methane policy next year as we all seek to turn the page on a devastating and traumatic 2020.
Right now, the Trump administration’s senseless and unconscionable attack on effective rules to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry is being challenged in federal court, and the Biden administration will rightfully treat the climate crisis as an existential threat, not a hoax.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently recorded this year as the second-hottest ever, a mere two-hundredths of a degree behind 2016. Undoing the damage caused by the previous administration will take time, but we absolutely must move in the right direction.
Pennsylvania has already begun to experience vast and devastating impacts from climate change: higher temperatures, changes in precipitation, and frequent extreme weather events, including large storms, flooding, heat waves, heavier snowfalls, and periods of drought.
In 2018, Pennsylvania experienced the wettest summer on record. Major flooding and landslides damaged state roads at a cost of $105 million according to PennDOT. The 2021 Pennsylvania Climate Impacts Assessment projects drastic increases in precipitation, including 42 percent more days with “extreme precipitation” by 2050.
Low-lying major cities such as Philadelphia will experience the greatest impacts from higher amounts of rainfall, sea level rise, and extreme heat and humidity caused by methane emissions.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) warns that every county in PA will see an increase in precipitation between 8 percent and 12 percent during the wettest months. But Southeastern Pennsylvania will continue to lead the state in “very heavy” precipitation events throughout this century. Water levels in the Delaware Estuary are projected to rise 2.1 feet by 2050 and 4.7 feet by 2100.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania is the second-largest fracked gas producing state in the country. Methane, the primary component of fracked gas, is an extremely potent climate pollutant, up to 87 times as efficient at trapping atmospheric heat as carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after its release.
The oil and gas sector is the nation’s largest industrial emitter of methane. The Commonwealth has tens of thousands of oil and gas wells that collectively emit over 1.1 million tons of methane pollution annually.
This doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of orphaned and abandoned gas wells with no legal owner that have been drilled throughout Pennsylvania since the 1870s. Although no longer active, these abandoned fossil fuel extraction sites continue to leak methane into our atmosphere.
At the federal level, the Trump administration’s recent rollback of the 2016 New Source Performance Standards (NSPS), the first-ever federal methane rules for the oil and gas sector, represents terrible public policy.
The approach is particularly nonsensical because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – under the watch of former coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler – identified no practical or administrative problems in enforcing the rules. The agency identified no burden whatsoever to industry in continuing to comply with the rules. It is simply mindless deregulation.
Clean Air Council, other environmental petitioners, and numerous state attorneys general, including Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, all filed briefs challenging the rollback in federal court, urging that it be vacated in its entirety.
Pennsylvania has also taken some helpful steps to curb methane emissions from its own oil and gas infrastructure with policies adopted under state law, but federal rules – including those that, under the Clean Air Act, must be promulgated to apply to all existing sources – would be the most effective approach to significantly curb emissions. Methane is a global pollutant, and its emissions are not bound by any border.
Climate change is affecting us all, increasingly those of us in Philadelphia. That’s why President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris must prioritize strong methane rules at the federal level and end the Trump EPA’s senseless assault. It’s a major reason to look ahead to 2021 with hope.
Joseph Otis Minott is the executive director and chief counsel at Clean Air Council. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. He writes from Philadelphia.
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