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As Democrats spar over advancing Biden’s climate agenda, they move to cut methane

Friday’s House vote to restore Obama-era limits is intended to curb the oil and gas industry’s emissions of a potent greenhouse gas

Flames from a flaring pit near a well in the Bakken Oil Field. (Orjan F. Ellingvag/Corbis News/Getty Images)
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The House voted Friday to restore a rule targeting leaks of methane from oil and gas operations, reinstating Obama-era standards for limiting the potent greenhouse gas that had been dismantled under President Donald Trump.

The 229-to-191 vote marked a rare bipartisan step in the fight against climate change, but it comes amid growing tensions among Democrats over whether broader and more ambitious action is being sacrificed in the push for a bipartisan infrastructure deal. Twelve House Republicans sided with 217 Democrats to push through the measure.

The vote to reestablish more stringent oversight of methane, whose emissions have surged at a startling rate in recent years, focuses on the oil and gas sector, which ranks as the nation’s largest industrial source of methane emissions.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), a leading advocate for restoring the Obama-era policies, said the policy change would help slow Earth’s warming and also prevent pollutants that can harm people’s health in the short term.

“If we are going to get serious about addressing the climate crisis, let’s get serious about cutting our methane emissions,” DeGette said on the House floor just ahead of Friday’s vote. “If we are going to get serious about protecting the public’s health, let’s pass this legislation today.”

In the United States and abroad, reining in methane has become a growing international priority. Global levels of the gas, which traps roughly 80 times as much heat as carbon dioxide in the first two decades after it is released, have continued to soar even during the economic downturn.

The European Union last fall detailed a strategy to improve the reporting and regulation of methane emissions from its energy, agriculture and waste sectors. Leaders from France to Russia have called for a more concerted effort to tackle the problem. Some major fossil fuel companies have backed such an approach and undertaken their own efforts to cut down on leaks, and pressure has increased from consumers who expect cleaner gas supply chains.

But so far, many sources of the second most abundant greenhouse gas, behind carbon dioxide, remain largely unregulated in much of the world.

Proponents cheered Friday’s restoration of the 2016 methane rule as a modest but necessary step. But the vote comes as prominent Democratic lawmakers warn they are prepared to torpedo a tentative bipartisan infrastructure deal unless they get assurances that legislation more ambitious climate provisions moves at the same time.

The tensions over the deal underscore the party’s struggle over what it can achieve with slim majorities in the House and Senate, and what President Biden has promised — and prominent scientists say must happen — to avoid catastrophic levels of warming.

In a call with reporters Thursday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called the bipartisan deal inadequate at a time when his constituents and others living out West are facing devastating, intensifying wildfires fueled by climate change.

“It will not include comprehensive clean energy policy, and I am not willing to support throwing climate change overboard,” Wyden said. “The two bills have to be directly connected.”

Biden’s faith in bipartisanship is rewarded — at least for now

The bipartisan package includes funding to build a national network of electric vehicle charging stations, electrify thousands of school and transit buses, and upgrade the nation’s electrical grid. But it offers only a fraction of the support for clean energy Biden outlined in his original jobs plan, leaving out a national standard requiring utilities to use a specific amount of solar, wind and other renewable energy over the next decade.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said his side had enough votes to make any infrastructure vote contingent on a bill with more sweeping climate policies. “The planet is on fire, and we are not going to miss this opportunity,” he said in a text message.

Still, many liberal activists remain unconvinced the Democrat-controlled Congress will act forcefully enough.

“This is a historic, narrow opportunity to combat the climate crisis, and we can’t afford to kick the can down the road any further,” said Lauren Maunus, advocacy director for the Sunrise Movement, in a statement. “When Democrats agree to water it down more, they’re condemning Americans to untold devastation.”

Reversing the energy policies of the last administration, by contrast, is an easier lift. The resolution passed Friday — which now heads to Biden for his signature — is part of Democrats’ push to use the Congressional Review Act to scrap policies put in place by Trump across numerous agencies.

The law, which allows lawmakers to abolish any regulation within 60 legislative days of its finalization by a simple majority vote, represents one of the quickest ways to wipe out an existing federal rule. Republicans used the law to overturn 16 rules during the first two years of Trump’s presidency, including ones limiting the dumping of coal mine waste into nearby waterways and another requiring oil, gas and mineral companies to disclose more information about their payments to foreign governments.

Democrats have been much more sparing in their reliance on the law. But the Senate voted in April to reinstate the Obama-era methane standards, after they had fallen victim to Trump’s deregulatory agenda.

After Biden officially restores the policy, oil and gas companies will have to check every six months for methane leaks from pipelines, storage tanks and other equipment installed after 2015 — and plug any leak within 30 days after it is detected.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Robert Howarth, an Earth systems professor at Cornell University, whose 2019 study estimated that shale gas production in North America accounts for a third of the world’s increase in methane emissions over the past decade.

Overall, U.S. methane emissions are lower than decades ago, but they have risen in recent years, in part due to growing emissions from agriculture, but also an uptick in oil-and-gas-related emissions, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, concentrations of methane in the atmosphere have spiked in recent years to record levels.

Global methane levels have hit record high -- Atmospheric concentrations of methane, a greenhouse gas roughly 80 times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide in the near term, have rising steadily in recent years.

Policymakers have increasingly focused on methane in part because, unlike the more prevalent carbon dioxide, it is relatively short-lived. An analysis released in April projected that cutting methane in half by the end of the decade could slow the Earth’s warming by as much as 30 percent.

Drew Shindell, an Earth science professor at Duke University, said in an interview that it is important to make cuts as soon as possible, given the damage that climate change is already causing. “We need some relief very quickly, because the impacts are outpacing the predictions,” he said.

Day by day, Biden is unwinding Trump's environmental policies

Sarah Smith, who directs the Super Pollutants program at the advocacy group Clean Air Task Force, said that restoring the rule allows the EPA to move more quickly than it could have otherwise. The agency can now push to regulate existing oil and gas operations, which also are a source of methane leaks and were not covered in the 2016 regulation.

“It’s very important from the perspective of signaling that Congress expects and supports EPA moving forward with stronger methane standards,” she said.

The Trump administration finalized its replacement rule, which allows oil and gas operators to largely police themselves on methane leaks, late in the president’s term. In announcing the effort, then-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler called the mandatory requirements “unnecessary and duplicative.”

But the industry itself was split over the decision. Some large companies, such as BP and Royal Dutch Shell, said the EPA should regulate methane emissions to protect the environment and create a level playing field. BP has pledged to end routine flaring when drilling on land in the United States by 2025, and started monitoring its emissions through drones and infrared cameras.

“Keeping methane in the pipes is good for the planet and for business,” said Mary Streett, the company’s senior vice president for U.S. advocacy. “It means that we can sell it as a cleaner fuel source rather than losing it.”

But some smaller operators called federal standards to search for and repair methane leaks onerous.

In April findings published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, researchers determined that an aggressive effort using existing technologies could reduce methane emissions in half by 2030 and aid the world’s quest to keep warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to preindustrial levels — a central aim of the Paris climate accord. Separately, a United Nations published this spring said cutting methane is “the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years.”

The world already has warmed more than 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), a change that has fueled intensifying hurricanes and wildfires, deepening droughts as well as heat waves and other extreme weather. Scaling back methane emissions dramatically could mean avoiding some amount of expected sea level rise, and delaying a range of other catastrophes fueled by climate change.

Biden has seized on the issue as a priority, and his deputies have begun to set policies in motion that would make further methane cuts. The administration plans to chart an all-of-government approach to the pollutant later this summer.

In the meantime, the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued an advisory bulletin this month warning pipeline companies and operators that they are legally required to curb methane leaks. And the new bipartisan infrastructure deal is likely to fund capping abandoned oil and gas wells that seep the gas.

It remains unclear how much funding the administration will get for those kinds of efforts. But these initiatives, along with pipeline repairs, enjoy support from unions as well as environmentalists.

United Association General President Mark McManus, who heads the nation’s largest pipeline union, described these efforts as a jobs opportunity for his members.

“It’s a win-win situation,” McManus said. “We want a good clean environment in any way, shape or form, and it’s very good work for the skilled members of the United Association to perform the tests and fix the leaks.”

Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.