The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Trump administration’s disastrous policy shift on methane emissions

The sun shines through clouds above a shale gas drilling site in St. Mary's, Pa., on March 12.
The sun shines through clouds above a shale gas drilling site in St. Mary's, Pa., on March 12. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

PRESIDENT TRUMP’S daily affronts to decency make it hard to focus attention on the substantive damage his administration is causing. But on Thursday, the administration announced a disastrous policy shift regarding methane emissions. The Obama administration had developed rules to limit these potent greenhouse agents from entering the atmosphere. Mr. Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency canceled the Obama methane rule, despite agreement even among large oil and gas companies that it was reasonable.

With climate change an ever-growing threat, and the United States paralyzed in its response, the willful negation of a useful and obviously needed remedy is perverse almost beyond imagination.

Theoretically, the growth in natural gas extraction in the United States over the past two decades could help the nation transition from greenhouse-gas-emitting fossil fuels, because it releases about half the heat-trapping carbon dioxide that coal does when burned. Cheap gas has pushed coal out of business, even as renewables have begun to step up.

But if leaks in wells, pipelines or storage tanks allow methane, which is the main component of natural gas, to waft into the air uncombusted, the carbon benefits can be wiped out. Unburned, methane is a much more powerful greenhouse agent than carbon dioxide, so preventing leaks is crucial. Studies have shown that drillers have not done enough to prevent leaks. The Global Carbon Project, for example, last month found that methane emissions have spiked almost 10 percent since the beginning of the century. A leading driver is leakage from the energy sector: Methane emissions from drilling and transporting the fuel were up 17 percent over the period. Other research has found that the efforts of some drillers to capture fugitive methane emissions have been offset by massive leaks from those who drill less responsibly.

Conscious that natural gas can be beneficial only if methane leakage is arrested, big energy companies eventually accepted the Obama rules requiring that drillers take care. Unlike with some environmental regulations that require massive plant retrofits or expensive monitoring, the methane rules’ compliance costs were low, in part because captured methane can be sold. Meanwhile, the alternative for the industry was a state-by-state patchwork of methane regulations of varying stringency, raising the complexity for large companies operating in many states. Clear national rules were obviously warranted.

But what is obvious to those who accept the facts is often lost on the Trump administration. Not only did the Trump EPA cancel the rules, but also it raised procedural barriers that future administrations would have to overcome to restore the regulations. The rollback gave specific sops to small-scale drillers, who, unlike larger energy companies, have complained that the EPA’s requirements are too expensive for them.

Large or small, no driller should be exempt from basic requirements. If they cannot drill responsibly, they should not be drilling. It is a measure of the Trump administration’s allergy to reason that even these modest rules were deemed too burdensome. Rolling back this latest rollback should be top on Democrats’ list if they prevail in November.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Even the fossil-fuel industry doesn’t like the EPA’s methane rollback

Paul Waldman: Trump’s enthusiasm for pollution is too much for even the oil industry

The Post’s View: With the country distracted, the EPA tees off on the environment

Ruth Greenspan Bell and Steven Silverman: Pollution knows no boundaries. The Trump EPA should stop pretending otherwise.

The Post’s View: The EPA must not ignore alarming science

Bernard D. Goldstein: If I were still working at the EPA, I would resign