Amid the seemingly endless debate over infrastructure proposals, Congress passed a resolution that’ll have significant negative consequences for U.S. oil and gas production. Using the Congressional Review Act (CRA), Congress reversed the Trump administration’s changes to regulations of methane—also called natural gas—from production wells and pipelines.
The use of the CRA means that the Obama-era methane rule is now back on the books, and oil and gas companies will be subject to its costly restrictions. The change was predictably lauded by the environmental-alarmist lobby, but it also earned the support of several oil and gas majors and garnered three Republican votes in the Senate. It also was widely praised in the media, even in the oil and gas capital of Houston.
Though regulating methane emissions seems to have widespread support, the rule has significant consequences that Congress didn’t acknowledge.
First, regulating methane will bring no measurable environmental benefits. Like carbon dioxide, methane is naturally occurring in the atmosphere and isn’t directly harmful to humans. Environmental activists have labeled it a “super pollutant” because each molecule traps heat in the atmosphere 25 times more efficiently than carbon dioxide—but what they purposefully don’t say is that methane is 200 times more dilute than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and is emitted at 1/200th the rate.
If the United States eliminated all of its methane emissions by 2050, the effect on global temperature in 2100 would be a mere 0.03 degrees Celsius, far less than the error range in our measurements of global temperature. In other words, the environmental benefits of eliminating U.S. methane emissions entirely can barely be measured, much less quantified as accurately as the severe costs of achieving those emission reductions.
The methane rule itself, which was projected to reduce U.S. methane emissions by only a few percentage points (pdf) between 2016 and 2025, is even less consequential, with a projected temperature impact on the order of a thousandth of a degree. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inflates the perceived benefit by ascribing a cost of $1,500 to each ton of methane emissions (pdf). This arbitrary calculation, which is based on outdated and unhelpful climate modeling (pdf), is currently the subject of a multi-state lawsuit (pdf).
The hype around the rule also ignores that methane emissions from energy declined by 25 percent from 1990 to 2019, despite a 43 percent increase in U.S. energy production over that time. This decrease is nearly 10 times larger than the projected decrease from the methane rule, which will require regular inspections of hundreds of thousands of emissions sources at a projected cost of more than half a billion dollars annually (pdf).
Environmental groups claim that the EPA underestimates methane emissions, but there’s little evidence to support claims that U.S. methane emissions are larger than current estimates. Results from leakage surveys show that EPA models, which use data more than 20 years out of date, overestimated emissions at oil and gas facilities by anywhere from 22 percent to 36 percent.
Also overlooked is that the United States produces energy more responsibly and more efficiently than other leading producers around the world.
Emissions of criteria pollutants in the United States have fallen by 78 percent since 1970, with a 7 percent drop in the past five years alone. In a globally competitive market, regulations that make domestic production even slightly more expensive will only serve to shift production overseas—likely to the second-largest producer of oil and natural gas, Russia—and increase overall global emissions.
The legal justification for regulating oil and gas methane emissions under the Clean Air Act is based on the dubious claim that they “significantly contribute” to pollution that endangers human health. The evidence presented in this article is only the tip of the iceberg of available evidence that directly invalidates that claim.
The Trump EPA correctly declined to regulate methane emissions directly until proper evidence of significance was presented. It also set a floor for how much emissions merit regulation under the Clean Air Act. By eliminating that floor, the current Congress and the Biden administration are giving the EPA carte blanche authority to regulate greenhouse emissions from almost every sector of the economy, including energy-intensive agriculture, cement, and steel production—all of which, like energy, are critical to our lives and heavily influence our overall cost of living.
At a time when a third of American households still struggle to pay their energy bills, our elected leaders and unelected bureaucrats are intent on imposing more regulations on domestic energy producers that’ll raise energy costs while providing no measurable environmental benefits. This blind faith in the need to combat climate change at any cost must be countered by the reality that energy poverty is still a far greater problem.
If the United States focuses on using its energy dominance to provide affordable and reliable energy for the world, it’ll improve the lives of billions, improve the global environment, and increase our resilience to any changes that Mother Nature will throw at us. That sounds like a plan everyone should support.