Another day, another set of regulations targeted for reversal by President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency. The latest possible rollback affects a powerful greenhouse gas with up to 36 times more warming potential than carbon dioxide.
The agency moved Monday to make it easier for drillers to meet requirements meant to curb leaks of that gas, methane, from oil and natural gas infrastructure. The rules are not final, and the public will have 60 days to comment on the potential changes after they are published in the Federal Register.
While the changes will save industry money, the agency’s own analysis found the proposed rules could pump hundreds of thousands more tons of the climate-warming gas into the atmosphere and add millions of dollars in agricultural, health-care and other costs to the U.S. economy because of climate change.
The potential changes would decrease the frequency of leak inspections, from twice a year to once per year, and eliminate a requirement that vent systems be certified by professional engineers.
Taken together, those small tweaks could make for a sizable contribution to climate change, according to environmentalists, public-health advocates and elected Democrats who issued scathing public statements after the EPA’s announcement.
“At a time when the science is telling us the methane problem is much greater than previously understood, today’s proposal is taking us in exactly the wrong direction,” Matt Watson, associate vice president for the energy program at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), said in an interview.
But oil and gas lobbying groups, including the American Petroleum Institute, praised the proposal for reining in what they see as federal overreach. They say they have every incentive to capture as much methane as possible, since it is the main component of natural gas.
“We welcome EPA’s efforts to get this right, and the proposed changes could ensure that the rule is based on best engineering practices and cost-effective,” said Howard Feldman, API’s senior director of regulatory and scientific affairs.
And acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said his agency's “common-sense reforms” will save oil and gas companies up to $75 million annually, according to an EPA analysis. He added that the EPA would be duplicating state efforts to regulate methane leaks.
But even the EPA acknowledged the proposal has costs to the rest of the economy. The agency estimates the rule changes if enacted would contribute 380,000 tons of methane to the atmosphere between 2019 and 2025, in addition to smaller amounts of other air pollutants.
During that seven-year period, the United States would forgo up to $54 million in economic benefits that would have come through reducing the impact of climate change, according to the EPA.
The agency came to that estimate by calculating the social cost of methane. That economic statistic attempts to tally up the expense every additional pound of the planet-warming gas contributes to extreme weather events, crop loss, lower labor productivity and other effects of climate change.
But the measurement, developed by the EPA under President Barack Obama to highlight the economic boon of tackling climate change, is itself under attack by the Trump administration, though the EPA still made the tabulation for its methane proposal.
“Reducing methane is a highly effective way to reduce the rate of climate change,” EDF’s Watson said, “and it’s also one of the cheapest and easiest things we can do to reduce climate pollution.”
The EPA, he added, is “clearly more concerned with helping out the worst-run companies in the industry than they are with the health and welfare of average Americans.”
Given that methane equals money for oil and gas companies, the larger ones tend to have the ability to capture more of the gas in their operations. Last year, eight energy multinationals, including ExxonMobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell, volunteered to monitor and reduce methane emissions along guidelines developed with EDF.
Brady Dennis contributed to this report.
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— The Carolinas and Virginia get ready for Hurricane Florence: Florence is charging closer to the coast of the Carolinas “where it threatens to become the most intense storm to strike the region in at least 25 years,” The Post’s Jason Samenow reports. The Category 4 storm is generally projected to make landfall in southeast North Carolina on Friday as a Category 3 or 4 storm and is likely to produce “catastrophic” flooding in the eastern Carolinas. “This will likely be the storm of a lifetime for portions of the Carolina coast, and that’s saying a lot given the impacts we’ve seen from hurricanes Diana, Hugo, Fran, Bonnie, Floyd, and Matthew,” wrote the on-duty National Weather Service meteorologist serving Wilmington, N.C. “I can’t emphasize enough the potential for unbelievable damage from wind, storm surge, and inland flooding with this storm.”
-- Prepare for lots of rain if you live in the Washington region, but the worst of the storm will likely spare residents here. "There is still some chance that the region will endure disruptive rain and wind from the storm. This risk increases as you head south into central Virginia toward Charlottesville and Richmond, and especially southern and southwestern Virginia," writes The Capital Weather Gang's Jason Samenow. "In addition, even if the storm’s center remains well south of the Washington region, there may still be a push of seawater up the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay sufficient to cause some flooding along its shores."
-- D.C. has declared a state of emergency just in case. "District officials said they believe a main threat will be periods of heavy rain, starting Thursday night and into Friday. 'We will see torrential rain for at least three to four days,' said Christopher Rodriguez, director of the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency," report Dana Hedgpeth and Luz Lazo.
-- The Washington Post is offering coverage of Florence without a paywall, so you'll be able to read all about the massive storm even if you don't have a subscription.
Residents from the Carolinas are busy preparing:
Meanwhile, Trump told reporters that his administration's response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was an “incredible, unsung success:"
— As Florence looms, Trump touts last year’s response in Puerto Rico: In response to reporters following a briefing on Florence, Trump called the response in Puerto Rico “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about,” The Post’s Felicia Sonmez and John Wagner report. He also incorrectly claimed the U.S. territory was virtually without electricity prior to the storm.
The facts: Researchers from George Washington University estimated last month there were nearly 3,000 deaths in the six months following Maria, and FEMA itself has acknowledged it was not fully prepared for the storm, a figure that Gov. Ricardo Rossello said would become the official death toll for the storm and making it the second-most deadly in U.S. history. Thousands of Puerto Ricans also remained without power for months after the storm.
Success? Federal response according to Trump in Puerto Rico a success? If he thinks the death of 3,000 people os a success God help us all.— Carmen Yulín Cruz (@CarmenYulinCruz) September 11, 2018
And Trump took a shot at her, and re-upped his praise for his administration's response to Maria, this morning:
We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan). We are ready for the big one that is coming!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 12, 2018
-- Ashley Parker writes about Trump's tendency to talk in hyperbole, even when he is referring to a natural disaster: "Flanked in the Oval Office by charts showing the path of Hurricane Florence, President Trump on Tuesday issued a warning about the potentially catastrophic storm that at times felt strangely exuberant. 'Tremendously big and tremendously wet — tremendous amounts of water,' Trump said, expressing something close to admiration at the expected precipitation."
— FEMA vows it is ready this time: The Federal Emergency Management Agency insists that it is prepared for Florence. The agency’s associate administrator Jeff Byard said Tuesday he’s “confident this response will be good,” he told reporters, according to Bloomberg News. Meanwhile, the Transportation Department is waiving a federal 11-hour limit on how long truckers can drive in an effort to prevent shortages of fuel and other supplies after the hurricane, per the Washington Examiner.
Meanwhile, FEMA chief makes comparisons to Hurricane Hugo: William “Brock” Long related in a Tuesday interview on CBS his experience with Hurricane Hugo in his hometown of Newton, N.C. when he was 14-years-old, The Post's Reis Thebault reports. Hugo “came right over my house,” Long said. “This storm is setting up to be very similar to that one." Hugo was the last Category 4 storm to make landfall in the Carolinas.
Ahead of storm, Democratic senators took shots at FEMA:
- Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) made public a letter from FEMA’s Long revealing that of the more than 2,000 requests from Puerto Ricans who applied for funeral assistance following Maria, only 75 were approved. “Although Long did not give a specific reason in his letter for the rejections, he pointed to FEMA’s requirements" that death certificate attribute the death to the disaster, according to BuzzFeed News.
- And Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) shared documents live on MSNBC on Tuesday indicating the Trump administration took nearly $10 million from FEMA's budget and diverted it to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, per USA Today. Both agencies fall under the Department of Homeland Security.
— A Category 6 future? As the climate continues to warm, hurricanes may well intensify faster and more often, new research suggests, similar to the way Florence jumped from a Category 1 to Category 4 storm in just over a day, The Post’s Chris Mooney reports. And in some extreme situations, he writes the storms might arguably be labeled "Category 6.” Right now, there is no “Category 6” on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, though the Category 5 grouping is open-ended. Lead author of the research Kieran Bhatia, who did the work as a graduate researcher at Princeton University, told Mooney: “The reason there are going to be more major hurricanes is not necessarily there are going to be that many more storms … it’s really the fact that those storms are going to get there faster.”
— Bigger, slower, and more rain: Meteorologists are predicting Florence will be wet and slow like Hurricane Harvey in Texas, HuffPost reports. Those characteristics made last year's storm particularly dangerous since they increased the risk of flooding. Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann said Florence has, like last year’s storm, been “supercharged” by climate change. “Most scientists are careful not to attribute any single storm to our changing climate,” HuffPost reports. “But the scientific community — including experts at the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — has long warned that anthropogenic climate change influences extreme weather events."
— EPA proposes cleaning up West Virginia town haunted by chemical dumping: The EPA wants to add the town of Minden, W.Va. to a list of list of “National Priorities List” for cleanup. The once-thriving coal town has long experienced an “alarming number of cancers and other health issues,” The Post’s Brady Dennis reports. “The roughly 250 people who remain have long suspected that the polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, discovered throughout the area have played a role in sickening residents.” Dennis published a deep dive into the town in July worth revisiting today.
— Zinke takes aim at wildlife rules: In a memo on Monday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told the Fish and Wildlife Service to find areas where federal wildlife policies were more strict than state policies and to develop plans to ease federal rules to align better with them. “The effective stewardship of fish and wildlife requires the cooperation of the various states and the federal government,” Zinke wrote in the memo, released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
- The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee holds a hearing on evaluating federal disaster response and recovery efforts on Thursday.
- The House Science, Space and Technology subcommittees on oversight and on the environment hold a joint hearing on “Examining the Underlying Science and Impacts of Glider Truck Regulations” on Thursday.
- The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee holds a hearing on emerging transportation technologies on Thursday.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on U.S. LNG in meeting European energy demand on Thursday.
- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on nuclear technology on Thursday.
- The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the environment holds a hearing on the air quality impacts of wildfires on Thursday.
— "A wild ride": That's how Jassen Todorov, a music professor at San Francisco State University, described his flight over the Mojave Desert, during which he captured this image of some hundreds of thousands of cars Volkswagen reacquired after its historic emissions scandal. His photo was an honorable mention in The Washington Post's annual travel photo contest.