In 1985, when I was a kid and the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases had yet to cross climate-destabilizing thresholds, old school rappers Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three dropped a dope single, “The Roof Is On Fire.”
Watching the Trump administration these days, it’s hard not to think that the EPA has adopted that track’s infectious chorus as its mantra: “The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire / We don’t need no water, let the motherfucker burn / Burn mother fucker, burn!”
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Case in point: The EPA is proposing to deregulate the oil and gas industry, to no longer require that new natural gas wells, pipelines and storage facilities include technology to detect and limit leaks of methane — a powerful greenhouse gas, with 28 times the heat trapping effect of carbon dioxide. (Methane is the primary component of natural gas. Thanks to fracking, the United States is the global leader of natural gas production.)
The Trump EPA is now governed by climate deniers. Anne Isdal, a former deputy to the Texas land commissioner, is acting administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation told the Wall Street Journal that the purpose of the proposed rule “is to get to the fundamental basis of whether [methane] should have been regulated in the first place,” telling the paper, “I don’t see that there’s going to be some big climate concern here.”
The proposed rule would undo methane limits finalized by the Obama administration in 2016. Since those leak monitoring rules were imposed, scientists have discovered that the U.S. oil and gas industry is leaking 60 percent more of the dangerous gas than previously understood — enough to “substantially erode the potential climate benefits” from substituting natural gas for coal.
An analysis by the Wall Street Journal earlier this month found that the leaks create the greenhouse equivalent of 69 million cars — not nice. That figure relied on the EPA’s formulas for measuring methane’s climate impacts. Using metrics favored by the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the automobile-equivalent rises to 94 million — or nearly a third of the cars now on the road in the United States.
In fight climate change in the short term, limiting methane emissions is one of the most effective tactics. That’s because the global warming impacts of methane leaks are front-loaded — precisely as the world is trying to buy itself time to deal with our climate crisis. The gas breaks down into relatively less harmful gases (including CO2) in about eight years.
In addition to endangering the planet, the oil and gas industry’s methane leaks represent an enormous economic waste — squandering upwards of $2 billion a year according to the journal Science. Both the EPA and American Petroleum Industry — the front group for oil and gas drillers — claim this lost value creates an profit-motive for the industry to self regulate. “The Trump administration recognizes that methane is valuable,” said EPA administrator Ted Wheeler, announcing the proposed rule, “and the industry has an incentive to minimize leaks and maximize its use.”
But we know from current practice that this a bunch of malarkey. In the booming oil fields of Texas, for example, natural gas can become a financial burden. A lack of connectivity to gas pipeline networks means it often costs more ship natural gas away from the oilfields than the producers are paid for it. So drillers routinely burn it into the open air in a process known as flaring. The amount of natural gas currently going up in smoke in the Texas oil fields is enough to power every home in the state.
The EPA’s proposed new rule is far from finalized — it is subject to public comment and will certainly be challenged in court by environmental groups. In an odd twist, even some of the oil and gas majors like Exxon and Shell reportedly oppose the Trump rule, arguing that such deregulation undercuts their branding of natural gas as a cleaner fossil fuel. The administration hopes to finalize the new regulation before the end of Trump’s current term.
“This reckless rollback highlights the Trump administration’s complete contempt for our climate,” Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, told Rolling Stone in a statement. “Fracked gas is a climate killer, and Trump’s rash embrace of this dirty stuff showcases the need for the next president to commit to a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels.”