The Obama administration proposed on Tuesday the first regulations that would target methane emissions by the oil and gas industry, the latest stride in the president’s race to prevent catastrophic climate change.
The new standards are a complement to the Clean Power Plan that President Obama announced on August 3, officials said, and both are part of the president’s ambitious Climate Action Plan. The combined program could remake the way Americans generate and consume electricity, and rescue the president’s mixed first-term legacy on global warming. But it’s under fire from all sides.
Activists say the plan doesn’t go far enough. Right-leaning politicians and pro-industry groups argue that it’s a job-killing monster. The Supreme Court could still eviscerate almost all of it. And the agency that’s actually charged with implementing it all—the Environmental Protection Agency—is facing charges of incompetence after it accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater in Colorado earlier this month.
The plan announced Tuesday would slash methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by at least 40% over 2012 rates by 2025, the EPA said on Tuesday. That’s a big deal because methane is a heat-trapping greenhouse gas, and a potent one—with potentially 25 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.
The new rules, which could be finalized by next summer, will force the industry to fix leaks, stop the flaring of gas from hydraulically fracked oil wells and install new equipment to keep discharges to a minimum. Environmentalists have been calling for such standards for years, amid escalating warnings about methane from groups as varied as the Center for American Progress and the Government Accountability Office.
“Today's EPA methane standards are a much needed and necessary step toward minimizing the oil and gas industry’s impact on our climate and communities,” Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “We’re encouraged that the Obama administration is beginning to ask the oil and gas industry to bear the burden of its pollution.”
That environmentalists are merely “encouraged” is the key word. The plan unveiled Tuesday only applies to new and modified oil and gas wells. In other words, the owners of the thousands of oil and gas wells that already exist have no reason to fear the new standards, because they simply don’t apply to them. At some point, the EPA is required to expand the regulations to the whole industry, but there’s no timetable for that move.
Obama’s entire climate change plan has been criticized for soft spots like this one. In interviews with msnbc earlier this month, activists portrayed it as dangerously self-congratulatory, sapping the movement of urgency while doing almost nothing to maintain the future habitability of the earth.
“The actions are practically worthless,” said James Hansen, a climate researcher who headed NASA’s Goddard’s Institute for Space Studies for over 30 years and first warned congress of global warming in 1988. “They do nothing to attack the fundamental problem.”
Meanwhile, Obama’s authority to even apply these rules is under threat and so is the agency that’s tasked with the work. It’s an extraordinary legal, political and even cultural battle that could stretch for years, flaring as leaders prepare to negotiate a global climate accord in Paris in December.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, has been leading the opposition. He called for open defiance of the Clean Power Plan in a March op-ed for a local paper, dubbing it an “attack on the middle class.” Attorneys general for at least 15 states have said they plan to sue over the new carbon restrictions, and GOP presidential hopefuls have circled the plan and started kicking.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz led the assault earlier this month, framing the plan as a financial burden on working families and yet another unconstitutional power grab by the president.
“It’s typical of the Obama administration, taking executive power he doesn’t have,” Bush said. “I believe it’s unconstitutional, and I think, in a relatively short period of time, the courts will determine that as well.” Cruz agreed in a statement, calling the plan “lawless” and “flatly unconstitutional.”
And there’s the torrent of toxic sludge — the color of hot mustard and rife with poisonous metals —that started flowing through Colorado, Utah and New Mexico two days after Obama announced his Clean Power Plan. The EPA accepted responsibility for the spill, and the appearance of incompetence has created a growing political headache, too.
Members of oversight committees in both the House and Senate are planning hearings after Congress returns from its August recess, the Associated Press reported. “The EPA is supposed to help prevent environmental catastrophes, not cause them,” said Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, a member of the House leadership and the Energy and Commerce Committee. “But, sadly, President Obama’s EPA has been too busy threatening American jobs with radical regulations instead of focusing on what should be their core mission.”