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Congressional Democrats aim to reinstate rules on methane gas emissions from oil and gas works

Democrats want to require companies to monitor their pipelines for leaks of the potent greenhouse gas — and fix them fast

A construction site for a pipeline under the Hudson River near VerPlanck, N.Y., in 2016. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty Images)
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Democrats on Capitol Hill are aiming to swiftly reinstate Obama-era rules designed to rein in the emission of methane from the nation’s oil and gas industry.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced Thursday he is backing an effort to restore Environmental Protection Agency requirements meant to fix leaks of the potent greenhouse gas from new wells, pipelines and other equipment that were watered down by the Trump administration, with a floor vote planned for April. On the other side of the Capitol, House Democrats led by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) are set to introduce a companion resolution this week.

“Time is of the essence in this fight to combat the climate crisis,” DeGette said. “If we’re serious about wanting to stave off the worst effects of climate change before it’s too late, then we absolutely have to take steps now to reduce the amount of methane that’s being released into our atmosphere.”

Congressional Democrats want to take advantage of the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to overturn what it sees as objectionable rules completed in the waning days of the outgoing administration without having to go through a cumbersome rulemaking process.

If successful, this would be the first time Congress has turned to the Congressional Review Act to undo a rule under a Democratic president. The Trump administration used the 1996 law, the brainchild of former GOP House speaker Newt Gingrich, to reverse more than a dozen rules issued by the Obama administration on a wide variety of issues, including water pollution, worker safety and online privacy. Senate Democrats will also try to use the law to strike down an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rule under Trump they argue gives employers an unfair advantage when settling discrimination claims.

The effort on methane is a part of a broader, government-wide plan forming under President Biden to tackle global warming and meet his goal of eliminating the country’s contributions to climate change by the middle of the century.

Tracking Biden’s environmental actions

The United States is planning to unveil next month a new target for cutting climate-warming emissions and prod other nations to do the same under the Paris climate accord, which is designed to keep the Earth from warming by an average of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The planet is already 1 degree Celsius warmer than preindustrial levels, and a Washington Post analysis found roughly one-tenth of the globe has already warmed by more than 2 degrees Celsius.

“When it comes to steps we can take to address climate change, limiting methane emissions is the low-hanging fruit,” said Sen. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who is introducing the resolution with Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) in the Senate.

But the effort to compel the oil and gas industry to curb methane emissions comes at a time when the industry is already feeling squeezed by the Biden administration’s efforts to pause the sale of drilling rights and halt the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Even so, the American Petroleum Institute, the largest oil and gas lobbying group in Washington, says it wants to work with Congress and the Biden administration to shape any regulations going forward, noting that the more methane is captured, the more gas it can sell.

“We have an opportunity to build on the progress the industry has made in driving down methane emissions through technological advancement and cost-effective government policies,” said Frank Macchiarola, the group’s senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs.

If passed, the resolution would restore requirements on companies to check for methane leaks from pipelines, storage tanks and other equipment installed after 2015 every six months — and plug them within 30 days once detected.

Environmental advocates say preventing such seepage is crucial for the United States to meet its climate goals. Over a 20-year period, the gas has 84 times the global warming power of carbon dioxide.

The energy sector is the country’s largest source of methane emissions. In 2018, U.S. oil and gas companies emitted enough methane into the atmosphere to equal of warming effect of 175 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to the EPA.

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David Doniger, senior strategic director of the climate and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the Trump administration’s rollback “a free pass for America’s oil and gas companies to keep leaking.”

“Congress could quickly erase an appalling rollback,” he added. “This is big.”

The move by congressional Democrats would also open the door to the EPA writing even more expansive rules targeting errant methane emissions from older equipment built before 2015, which tends to be leakier. On his first day in office, Biden ordered the EPA to write comprehensive standards for curbing methane leaks from existing oil and gas infrastructure by September.

Lee Fuller, executive vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), which represents smaller oil and gas producers, said his group recognizes “the importance of environmentally sound, cost-effective regulations" to manage methane but cautioned against overburdening existing well operators.

“It’s IPAA’s view that any regulatory actions should recognize the differences between these existing small operations and newly built large facilities," he said.

When the Trump administration whittled down some of those surveillance responsibilities last August, officials argued the rules it rolled back were redundant, boasting the action would save the industry “millions of dollars in compliance costs each year.”

In his first news conference as president Thursday, Biden emphasized the importance reducing the release of methane from energy operations, even as the shift toward clean energy threatens jobs in the oil patch. "We have over 100,000 wellheads that are not capped, leaking methane,” he said, adding the country can put people “to work capping those wells.”