Department of the Interior Announces Rollback on Methane Leak Regulations
The U.S. Department of the Interior has announced its decision to ease Obama-era regulations on methane leaks established in 2016. The move, intended to remove “burdensome on the private sector” restrictions on oil and gas industry, resulted in a wave of negative backlash from environmentalists.
The two-year-old Waste Prevention Rule instructed oil and gas producing companies to inspect their wells twice a year and fix any reported leaks within 30 days. The regulation was justified by methane’s high capacity to trap heat in the atmosphere, exacerbating the greenhouse effect. The rollback of the regulation means companies are no longer obliged to check their wells and equipment more often than once per year and have twice as much time to stop the leakages – 60 days instead of 30.
Though not as long-lived as carbon-dioxide, methane prevents as much as 80 percent more heat from escaping in the first 20 years of its release. Methane leaks are the largest drawback of the otherwise environmentally friendly switch from coal to natural gas as a source of energy. Natural gas releases half as much carbon dioxide when burnt. But if methane escapes from oil and gas wells, those ecological benefits are practically erased. In a 2012 paper a group of scientists led by Steven P. Hamburg argued that natural gas would be a better option than goal only if the level of leakages is capped at 45-70 percent of the current level. The Trump administration removed emission restrictions for coal plants in his Affordable Clean Energy plan announced this August.
The rationale behind the rollback on methane leaks restrictions was largely economic. It is estimated that drillers would save $734 million to $1 billion over the next 10 years. David Doniger, the Natural Resource Defense Council’s senior strategic director for climate and clean energy, said “[t]he Trump administration is relentless in its push to give the oil and gas industry multi-million-dollar handouts at the expense of Americans’ health and environment”.
Many, however, expressed hopes that the new legislation will not lead to a significant increase in atmospheric methane levels as more and more oil companies pledge to self-restrict their leak levels. Two weeks ago, Royal Dutch Shell announced its intention to cut the methane leaks to just 0.02 percent by 2025. Maarten Wetselaar, Shell’s head of gas, stated that the company has a strong financial motivation for the move: “Everybody should want their product to stay in the pipe and be sold to the customer rather than leak it.” Shell’s announcement followed similar ones by Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP PLC, announced last spring.