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US Senate votes to reinstate Obama-era methane limits for new oil, gas wells

28 April 2021 Amena Saiyid

Democrats in the US Senate succeeded 28 April in moving closer to reinstating federal standards for emissions of methane, a potent GHG, from new and modified oil and natural gas wells that President Donald Trump rescinded in 2020.

On a 52-42 vote, the evenly divided Senate rolled back one of two 2020 methane emissions regulations by invoking the Congressional Review Act (CRA), an oversight tool that allows US lawmakers to introduce a resolution to overturn recent federal regulations on a simple majority vote.

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat-New York, introduced the resolution (S.J. Res. 14) to invoke the CRA for the methane rule along with two Democrats—Senators Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, and one Independent, Angus King of Maine.

The resolution will now be taken up by the Democrat-controlled US House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass, and then head to the desk of President Joe Biden who a day earlier indicated his support for the measure that would limit emissions of methane, a GHG and contributor to smog.

Crafted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the September 14 2020 "review" rule targeted by the CRA took methane out of the equation entirely through a "novel" reading of the Clean Air Act, Hana Vizcarra, a staff attorney with the Harvard Law School Environmental and Energy Law Program, told IHS Markit.

Vizcarra said this action had the effect of rolling back the first-ever federal standards set in 2016 to plug releases of methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from oil and gas production and processing wells as well as leaks of the GHG during storage and transportation.

The EPA's second revision to the 2016 regulation, which came out a day after the first one in 2020, targeted smog-contributing VOCs from new oil and gas production and processing wells, but this remains unaffected by the congressional action, Vizcarra added.

Reinstating Obama-era rule

Once successful, S.J. Res 14 will have the effect of reinstating the 2016 rule.

"This vote reinstates long-standing EPA understanding of its authorities under the Clean Air Act that were upended by Review rule that rescinded methane emissions standards during the Trump administration," Vizcarra wrote in an email. "It removes additional barriers to EPA's efforts to address greenhouse gas emissions erected by the 2020 rule."

Schumer and other Democrats say the resolution is in line with Biden's 20 January executive order to tackle climate change and protect the environment. The order required EPA to review, rescind, and replace the Trump EPA methane regulation for new oil and gas wells and write a new rule for existing oil and gas sources no later than September 2021.

Opening the floor debate on the resolution, Schumer said Senate Democrats were using the CRA for the first time, and it marked the first significant action take on climate in at least a decade.

"It is no mistake we have chosen to use the law first on the subject of climate change," he added.

Although methane receives less attention than CO2, Schumer said, 1 mt of methane "packs a bigger punch" because 1 mt of it can cause warming 86 times more than a similar amount of CO2.

Finding cuts in existing sources

Schumer's comments came a day after Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) Senior Climate Scientist Ilissa Ocko published a paper in the journal "Environmental Research Letters" that said the US should aim for halving methane emissions economywide by 2030.

"A rapid, full-scale effort to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, large-scale agriculture, and other human sources could slow the worldwide rate of warming by as much as 30%," EDF said in a statement.

The study also said that 80% of those reductions could come at no net cost to the oil and gas industry because captured methane can be sold.

The Biden administration has said it supports the CRA resolution because it will restore Clean Air Act methane pollution standards that President Barack Obama set in 2016 for the oil and gas sector, according to a statement issued 27 April by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

In that statement, the OMB added that a successful outcome of S.J. Res. 14 will "clear the pathway for EPA to evaluate opportunities to promulgate even stronger standards under section 111 of the Clean Air Act to address dangerous methane and other pollution from both new and existing sources across the oil and gas sector."

'Catnip to the liberal left'

Biden has set an economywide goal of halving GHG emissions compared with 2005 levels by 2030. The goal includes capping methane from existing as well as new oil and gas wells.

As expected, the measure drew opposition from Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican-Kentucky, who said the Biden administration has given up on uniting the American people in favor of providing "catnip to the liberal left."

Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican-West Virginia, took to the Senate floor to berate Democrats and the Biden administration for targeting the oil and gas industry. "I believe the CRA is part of a plan to double down on an industry that the Biden administration, since the day it took office, has said it does not support," Capito said.

The American Petroleum Institute, which represents major oil and gas companies, however, has publicly stated its aim to work with the Biden administration to regulate methane emissions from new and existing oil and gas wells.

The EPA reported that methane emissions associated with natural gas and oil production declined by 25.9% to 673.51 million mt CO2 equivalent between 1990 and 2019. Noting the declines in methane emissions on its website, the API added "we know we have more work to do."

Posted 28 April 2021 by Amena Saiyid, Senior Climate & Energy Research Analyst, IHS Markit

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