Senate Reinstates Obama-Era Controls on Climate-Warming Methane

April 29, 2021 by Dan McCue
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sens. Angus King, I-Maine, Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Ed Markey, D-Mass. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – The Senate voted Wednesday to reinstate an Obama-era regulation intended to reduce methane gas leaks from oil and gas facilities.

In September, former President Donald Trump rolled back the regulation, which required facility operators to regularly monitor their equipment and repair it or replace it with new equipment when leaks were found.

Former EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler endorsed the change Trump mandated, saying it would “strengthen and promote American energy” while saving companies tens of millions of dollars a year in compliance requirements.

Environmentalists cried foul, calling it one of the Trump administration’s most egregious actions to deregulate U.S. businesses.

In doing so they noted methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, packing a stronger punch in the short term than even carbon dioxide.

“What we’re voting on today is the legislative equivalent of a double negative,” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, on Wednesday morning. “This is a repeal of a repeal that in the end leaves the original rule in place.”

Sen. Angus King. (Photo by Dan McCue)

King was one of the prime movers behind the repeal of Trump’s action, along with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sens. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Ed Markey, D-Mass.

In the end the vote in the senate was largely along party lines with a few Republican senators, including Sens. Susan Collins, of Maine, Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, and Rob Portman, of Ohio, voting in favor of the resolution.

What made Wednesday’s vote noteworthy in a legislative sense is that it was the first time since Democrats took control of the Senate in January that they used an obscure law, the Congressional Review Act, to carry it out.

The Act prohibits Senate filibusters and ensures one administration’s last-minute regulations can be swiftly overturned with a simple majority vote in both chambers of Congress.

“The fact that we are using our first CRA on the methane rule shows how important it is and shows the difference in having a Democratic majority when it comes to climate change,” Majority Leader Schumer said at a press conference ahead of the vote.

He called it “one of the most important votes, not only that this Congress has cast but has been cast in the last decade, in terms of our fight against global warming.”

“The day Trump repealed the methane rules was a very dark day for our country,” Schumer continued. “Oftentimes, Trump did things just because Obama did it one way and he had to do it the other way. My guess is he probably didn’t even understand what this was all about.

“The bottom line, however is this: Under President Biden’s leadership, this Congress is going to move forward on many climate issues,” he said.

Sen. Markey went a step further, saying Trump’s rollback of the “common sense” methane rules, “showed just how little he cared about the people on this planet.

“Cutting methane emissions will immediately help curb global warming, it will save lives and prevent costly trips to emergency rooms, and it will show the world that the United States is ready, once again, to be the leader in combating the climate crisis. 

“The fossil fuel industry knows it has the potential to cut its methane emissions at little or no cost,” Markey continued. “We need strong rules on the books to make them do that. By passing this methane rule CRA, we can make real progress for our climate and for public health. Methane pollutes our land, our lungs, and our lives. Today’s vote [is] a decisive victory for our planet.” 

(Photo by Dan McCue)

Now that the Senate has acted, the result of a vote on the measure in the House next month is considered a foregone conclusion. And President Joe Biden is expected to waste no time, signing the measure into law. 

Just last week, Biden announced at a global climate summit that the U.S. wil cut its greenhouse house emissions by 50% of 2005 levels by 2030. The restoration of the Obama methane regulation is the first congressional action toward that goal.

The Congressional Review Act allows Congress to reverse any executive-branch rule within 60 legislative days of its enactment, but because the president can veto review act measures, the law can be effectively deployed only after a new administration takes control.

Republicans used the procedure to wipe out 14 late-term Obama administration rules in the fearly months of the Trump administration.

Speaking before the vote, Sen. Heinrich reiterated environmentalists’ ascertion that methane is a dramatically more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, being six times more potent in the atmosphere.

“And we’re leaking a lot of it,” he said. “We leak it, we vent it, and we flare it … so much so that a few years ago, NASA could actually see the methane plumes sitting over the northwest portion of my state.”

In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said earlier this month that methane and carbon dioxide “continued their unrelenting rise in 2020 despite the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic response.”

“The good news is, we don’t have to do this … we have solutions for this right now,” Heinrich said. “The industry standards actually work. And we can implement this in a way that will dramatically make a down payment on what we need to do to keep the climate below 1.5 degrees Celsius. This is not something where we need some fancy technology to come along 20 years from now, the solution is here.” 

Sen. King agreed.

“Regulating methane is the low-hanging fruit of climate action,” he said. “It is the simplest, most straight-forward thing that we can do immediately to make a significant change.”

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