This week at the international climate summit in Glasgow, President Joe Biden announced a suite of new policies aimed at reducing U.S. emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is the second-biggest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide. The core of Biden’s plan is a groundbreaking Environmental Protection Agency rule that aims to cut methane pollution from the oil and gas industry to a quarter of 2005 levels by the end of this decade.
The rule is a welcome departure from typical U.S. environmental policy. The EPA’s rulemaking can sometimes feel like an endless game of ping pong between alternating Democratic and Republican administrations. Case in point: the Biden administration is currently working to reverse a Trump-era reversal of an Obama-era reversal of a Bush-era reversal of a Clinton-era finding on the need to limit neurotoxic mercury emissions from power plants.
But the new methane rule goes beyond merely undoing the damage of the Trump years. The proposal is broader than its Obama-era predecessors, and once finalized, will apply to hundreds of thousands of previously unregulated emission sources, like wells, storage tanks, and compressor stations. That is because unlike the prior standards, Biden’s rule will cover equipment of all ages. EPA thus avoids a key conceptual error that has undercut agency initiatives for over five decades under administrations of both parties: The old rules regulated only new facilities, while exempting older ones from emission limits. In contrast, Biden’s rule covers new and old emitters alike.
And methane, the primary ingredient in natural gas, is a big problem. The gas has a startlingly powerful greenhouse effect when released directly into the atmosphere, trapping 86 times more heat over a 20-year period than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide. As a result, while methane accounts for only 16 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is responsible for almost a third of current, human-caused warming. And here in the United States, oil and gas installations are the largest industrial source of methane, due both to leaks and intentional venting during the production process.
The Obama administration recognized the need to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector back in 2016 and crafted regulations to do so. But those restrictions applied only to equipment constructed in 2015 or later, leaving the vast majority of the sector’s sources and emissions uncontrolled.
This story was troublingly familiar. Regulating new sources of pollution strictly and existing sources laxly or not at all is known as “grandfathering.” The EPA has engaged in the practice before, with disastrous results. Indeed, we wrote an entire book about the terrible consequences of exempting existing power plants from 1970s emission limits on soot- and smog-forming pollutants.
Starting in 1971, EPA rules required any newly constructed power plant to reduce its sulfur dioxide emissions by either installing a multimillion-dollar pollution “scrubber” or burning pricey low-sulfur coal. By 1978, scrubbers became mandatory regardless of the type of fuel burned, as did additional technology for controlling nitrogen-oxide emissions, again for all new plants.
Existing plants, however, weren’t subject to these rules, which gave utilities the perverse incentive to keep old, dirty facilities running far longer than they otherwise would have. For decades, pollution from these uncontrolled plants stymied state efforts to meet the Clean Air Act’s air quality goals and, along the way, caused the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Limiting regulation in the oil and gas sector to new sources would create the same deadly incentive to eke more years of use out of older equipment. What’s more, unlike power plants, oil and gas wells can continue to pollute for decades after they stop operating, making existing-source regulation even more essential for this sector.
Back in the 1970s, the EPA couldn’t entirely avoid grandfathering. The Clean Air Act simply didn’t authorize the agency to directly regulate the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen-oxide emissions of older facilities. But greenhouse gases like methane are treated differently—the EPA does have legal authority to regulate existing sources this time around, using proven, common-sense reduction techniques like requiring equipment owners to more frequently check for, and more promptly repair, leaks.
As the old saying goes, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Our nation has already spent far too long running down the clock on climate action. It’s heartening to know that, on this front at least, EPA isn’t wasting time remaking old mistakes.