The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Forget the Trump tweets. This is the Trump action that might actually kill us.

A shale gas drilling site in St. Marys, Pa., in March.
A shale gas drilling site in St. Marys, Pa., in March. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

If you want to understand the long-term consequences of the Trump presidency, forget his Twitter feed. Instead, think about methane.

Methane is the main ingredient of natural gas. When released into the atmosphere, it traps 80 times as much heat as its better-known greenhouse-gas cousin, carbon dioxide, over 20 years. Because of methane’s potent heat-trapping abilities, this “super-pollutant” is the sleeper issue of climate change.

Unfortunately, scientists don’t know precisely how much methane is being released because there hasn’t been adequate measurement. But recent studies suggest emissions are much greater than previously believed. In fact, recent research estimates that the fossil-fuel industry emits about 13 million metric tons of methane annually. That’s 80 percent higher than estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. In heat-trapping terms, it is roughly equivalent to total carbon dioxide emissions from all of the United States’ remaining coal-fired plants.

Considering that Death Valley in California on Sunday notched the hottest temperature (130 degrees) recorded on Earth since at least 1931, this is not exactly welcome news.

Much of the methane emitted into the atmosphere comes from undetected leaks in oil and gas operations. So, in 2016, the Obama administration finalized new regulations to detect and plug methane leaks from wells, pipelines and storage tanks. These totally reasonable regs were supported by energy companies such as Shell, BP and ExxonMobil; they knew methane leaks were a black eye for the fracking industry, which has marketed natural gas as a more climate-friendly alternative to coal.

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“We need to control methane emissions now to maximize the advantages of gas and secure a role for decarbonized gas in the future energy system,” BP wrote in a public comment last year. “Otherwise, we risk losing the confidence of investors, consumers, policymakers and other stakeholders.”

On Thursday, the Trump administration rolled back the rules anyway. In so doing, it provided a useful encapsulation of virtually every awful theme of this administration — and what’s at stake if President Trump gets reelected.

The new rules, first and foremost, are not merely anti-science, but anti-measurement. That is, the rollback’s primary initial impact is to keep Americans in the dark about a climate-damaging pollutant.

“How could we as an advanced society not want to measure these emissions?” asks Michael Greenstone, director of the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute. “This is such a concerted effort to stick our heads in the ground.”

Maybe so. But it would be of a piece with Trump’s musings about slowing coronavirus testing so Americans don’t learn how many cases there are; his administration’s decision to cease publishing economic forecasts so Americans can’t assess the problems facing the economy; and its actions to stop collecting or publishing inconvenient data on all sorts of other troubles.

Then, to the extent the administration did rely on data in justifying its methane deregulation, it cooked the books.

It did this by using accounting gimmicks in its official regulatory cost-benefit analysis. In technical documents, the administration said it was no longer taking into account harms that climate change might have outside U.S. borders; and also that it was changing the “discount rate” — that is, reducing how much weight it placed upon future costs. It was Trump’s trademark isolationism and short-termism, made mathematically explicit.

The result? The Obama-era estimate of methane’s social costs were ratcheted down from about $1,400 per metric ton to just $55 under a Trump accounting scenario. Incidentally, the Trump administration was admonished for this same phony math in a court case blocking a related environmental rule last month.

But again, funny accounting is par for the course with this president — for environmental rules or otherwise.

So, too, alas, is deregulatory action that disproportionately harms low-income families and people of color. As is Trump’s claim that such harms are necessary to help businesses, even though major businesses themselves reject the “help.”

Similar dynamics played out with the administration’s rollback of automotive fuel-economy standards (which were supposedly designed to help automakers, even though major auto companies opposed the rollback); and of mercury emissions regulations (likewise opposed by the utility plants Trump claimed to be aiding).

More broadly, the new methane rules are emblematic of this administration’s faulty assumption that there’s always a trade-off between what’s good for the economy and what’s good for public health. In fact — whether we’re talking about controlling the novel coronavirus or curbing climate change — the twin goals are complementary. In the long-run, a healthy populace (and environment) are necessary for a healthy economy.

If Joe Biden prevails in November, and Democrats control both houses of Congress, Trump’s new methane regulations will probably be reversed. Barring that, methane presents an ominous preview of what Americans can expect from four more years of Trump: An invisible, deadly, possibly existential threat, ignored for flashier distractions.

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