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Environmental protection ‘rollback’ narrative is full of holes

The Environmental Protection Agency recently revised some rules governing oil-and-gas rig methane emissions. Environmentalists in Congress immediately cried foul, with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., describing the proposal as a “horrifying blow” and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., calling the policy “wildly irresponsible and reckless.”

This fear-mongering falls apart under scrutiny. The proposed reform isn’t a “rollback” of vital environmental safeguards, as Sen. Schumer and his allies on the Hill would have us believe. It simply streamlines existing rules, making it easier for oil and gas firms to protect the environment while boosting energy production.

Methane is a colorless, odorless gas commonly found in underground energy reserves. If leaked into the atmosphere, it can trap heat and contribute to climate change. That’s why both federal and state governments already regulate methane emissions.

The EPA’s draft rule modifies the 2016 New Source Performance Standards, which regulate emissions at natural gas plants, well sites, and transportation stations.

The proposal streamlines federal rules with existing state regulations and cuts redundant requirements. For example, firms would no longer be required to directly regulate methane — since NSPS restrictions on harmful gases called “volatile organic compounds” are designed to simultaneously tackle methane emissions.

By easing pointless, redundant compliance burdens, the proposal would make it easier for energy firms to continue reducing methane emissions.

Consider that between 1990 and 2017, domestic natural gas production increased by more than 50 percent. During that same period, methane emissions from natural gas operations actually decreased by 14 percent.

Similarly, production spiked 100 percent in Texas’ Permian basin between 2011 and 2017 and 130 percent in its Eagle Ford basin. At the same time, methane emissions dropped 40 and 70 percent, respectively.

These extraordinary achievements weren’t the result of bureaucracy or red tape. They stemmed from the private sector’s efforts to make energy operations cleaner and safer.

Take the Environmental Partnership, a group of 65 energy firms committed to reducing methane emissions by leveraging the latest technology. During its first year, the partnership inspected 56 million parts on over 78,000 oil and gas sites. It also pioneered the use of optical gas imaging camera, which detect methane leaks using thermal imaging.

Energy firms clearly take environmental responsibility seriously. They also have a financial incentive to reduce methane emissions. Methane is the main component of natural gas, the very product these energy firms try to harvest. Every cubic foot of methane that escapes into the atmosphere is a cubic foot that can’t be sold for profit.

The frantic response to the new emissions proposal is nothing if not predictable. After all, the green movement has a stake in treating every new Trump administration environmental policy as an imminent threat to the future of our planet.

But in the case of the EPA’s commonsense methane proposal, the activists have overplayed their hand.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., is a senior fellow on energy and the environment at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center.

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