President Obama Tackles Fracking With New Regulations

The following is an opinion  column by Rmuse

Of all the actions taken by Barack Obama throughout his tenure as President, it is probable that none have received more opposition than those related to combatting the clear and present danger of anthropogenic climate change. Whether it was being engaged in a global climate accord in Paris, or an historic agreement with China, or tasking the Environmental Protection Agency to come up with new rules to protect the America’s water according to orders from the Supreme Court, Republicans vehemently opposed them.

It is likely that the EPA’s Thursday announcement and release of a final version of federal regulations to curb one of the most dangerous and powerful greenhouse gases, methane, will incite Republicans to a new level of fossil fuel outrage. This is particularly true because methane, the main component of natural gas, has never been regulated, and it is produced by another dangerous extraction technique Republicans will fight to the death to protect; hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”

This new set of requirements is particularly important for America because the nation is increasingly relying on natural gas for electricity generation as opposed to dirty coal. That expanded use of natural gas, and the environmentally-hazardous extraction technique “fracking,” has brought methane levels to dangerous new highs. It is a major problem for Americans’ health and serious obstacle in the pressing fight against climate change; a fight President Obama has led nearly single-handedly.

Now, the problem with methane emissions is that although they are lower than carbon dioxide emissions, and stay in the atmosphere for a relatively short period of time compared to CO2, it is incredibly more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. What that means is it is the “most significant near-term threat of global warming” and it was long-past time for the President to take action.

Over at Mother Jones, Tim McDonnell, wrote a fairly in-depth and comprehensive report on the dangers of increased methane emissions that is worth a careful read. McDonnell honed in on the issue of how not confronting methane-producing fracking may hurt the President’s climate legacy, but it also explains why methane is so dangerous and why the President had to act if America was going to reduce atmospheric warming.

McDonnell wrote:

When unburned methane leaks into the atmosphere, it causes dramatic warming in a relatively short period of time. The natural gas system produces methane emissions at nearly every step of the process, from the well itself to the pipe that carries gas into your home. Around two-thirds of those emissions are “intentional,” meaning they occur during normal use of equipment. For example, some pneumatic gauges use the pressure of natural gas to flip on or off and emit methane when they do so. The other one-third comes from so-called ‘fugitive’ emissions, a.k.a. leaks that happen when a piece of equipment cracks or otherwise fails.”

Those equipment failures, cracks, and improper or no maintenance procedures were responsible for the “state of emergency” from the largest methane leak in history. The Southern California disaster caused an entire community to relocate all the while the fossil fuel industry claimed methane is safe. Even a relatively environmentally-friendly state like California lacked a robust enough set of standards and regulatory oversight to force fracking companies to control methane emissions. And with none in place at the federal level, it required a concerted effort to finally staunch the methane cloud wreaking havoc on nearby communities and the atmosphere.

One of the reasons many environmentalist groups were skeptical of the President’s dedication to combat climate change early on was the strategy of “swapping the country’s coal consumption for natural gas.” This was particularly troubling because up until yesterday there were as many rules or regulations on methane emissions as there are on fracking; absolutely none. However, the new regulations, although a monumental change, are really “only a partial solution” to a big problem.

Like a lot of the new emissions standards enacted during the Obama Administration, these new rules only apply to and effect “new and modified natural gas infrastructure.” In that sense they are similar to the EPA’s new rules on most coal-fired generation plants and do not apply to already existing systems. According to some analysts’ estimates a little over “70 percent of natural gas-sector methane emissions from now until 2025 will come from sources that already exist.” Still, regulating 30 percent of the methane emissions is a giant improvement to no regulations whatsoever. Besides, Republicans have attempted to block new regulations on new and improved coal-fired plants so it is in keeping with the Administration’s “incremental changes” to environmental protections. Sweeping changes would likely result in an all-out shooting war between the fossil fuel industry advocates and Americans concerned about climate change or clean air and water.

Still, the regulation announced today achieves one of the final remaining big items on President Obama’s climate change checklist. Although not a perfect remedy, the President’s new rules will “reduce gas-sector methane emissions 40 to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025.” The rules simply “tighten the allowed emissions from pumps, compressors, wells, and other fracking and gas extracting infrastructure” by requiring more frequent surveys for leaks and implementing a data-gathering survey. Just the information gathered from frequent surveys will provide officials and gas producing companies an “informed understanding” of the high levels of methane leakage there is so they can take action to prevent it.

Now, Republicans will claim, as is their wont, that the new regulations will inordinately place financial burdens on consumers and the profitable fossil fuel industry, but like everything Republicans claim about regulations, that is not the case. According to analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency, the new regulations might cost as much as $530 million by 2025, but they will also produce $690 million in environmental benefits during the same period. No matter what political persuasion one holds, a $160 million benefit to combat climate change and protect Americans from methane pollution seems like a fiscally-responsible action.

There is no doubt the Republicans in Congress serving the whims and wishes of the Koch brothers and fossil fuel industry will cry foul and immediately take steps to block the President’s new rules on fracking emissions. Not because there is any question about the devastating effects of increasing methane emissions, but because it is an environmental regulation enacted by President Obama and affects their favorite major donors. Most Americans will likely never notice or hear about the President addressing fracking, but when they do and if they have even a passing regard for their families’ well-being, one hopes they will thank the President for doing what no Republican will ever consider; addressing climate change and reducing just one of the dangers of fracking.