Environment

Industry-Backed Congress Members Want to Roll Back Protections Against Dangerous Methane Pollution

It's time to put our health before polluter profits.

Natural gas flares from a flare-head at the Orvis State well on the Evanson family farm in McKenzie County, North Dakota, east of Arnegard and west of Watford City.
Photo Credit: Tim Evanson/Wikipedia

Industry-backed members of Congress have introduced legislation to roll back protections against harmful methane pollution from shale gas drilling, also called fracking, on public lands.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that poses a severe threat to the world's climate. And that's not the only danger it poses. When methane is extracted it is often accompanied by volatile organic compounds known to be toxic to humans. Both the methane and the VOCs frequently leak into the atmosphere. 

Why should you care if these methane protections go away? Because rolling them back would weaken our ability to fight climate change. The clock is ticking—scientists believe the opportunity to limit major world crises from climate change is now.

The Republican-led Congress is targeting a methane and waste prevention regulation, which requires oil and gas companies to cut the amount of natural gas that's released each year on public and tribal lands. (Natural gas is primarily composed of methane.) The regulation also reduces harmful air pollution.

The regulation is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, an agency within the Department of the Interior that manages more than 247 million acres of public lands in the U.S.—one-eighth of the landmass of the country.

Republicans are using the Congressional Review Act to dismantle the BLM methane regulation. Under the CRA, Congress has 60 legislative working days to withdraw any regulation finalized after June 13, 2016. What often goes unnoticed—and perhaps even more wicked—is that once a rule is overturned, the originating agency is barred from producing a "substantially similar" rule without congressional approval. That means it will be exponentially more difficult to reduce methane pollution on public and tribal lands in the future if this CRA passes.

Promoting health, not destroying jobs

Numerous studies have found regulations have no overall impact on employment, or if there is an impact, it's positive—such as increasing job opportunities.

The primary purpose of regulations is to shift the costs of preventing harm from the public to industry. For example, without regulations preventing air pollution, costs are imposed on the general public in terms of premature death, preventable cancers, increases in asthma and heart disease, and lost workdays. Regulation seeks to guarantee that the makers of these health-harming effects assume the burden of preventing them.

Who is driving the push to deregulate?

Between 2009 and 2015, the oil and gas industry on public and tribal lands released and leaked enough natural gas to supply about 6.2 million households for a year. According to the EPA’s own figures, natural gas systems are the single largest source of U.S. human-made methane emissions.

Corporate opponents of regulations like BLM’s methane and waste prevention rule spend millions lobbying and donating money to members of Congress. In 2015, for example, the oil and gas industry spent more than $130 million in lobbying and nearly $98 million in 2016 on political campaign contributions. Eighty-nine percent of the political spending went to Republicans. Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah introduced the CRA opposing the methane rule.

Methane leaks accelerate climate change, thus threatening human health

Methane as a greenhouse gas is 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide when considered in a twenty-year time frame. The two-decade time frame is important because that period more closely represents the period during which the countries of the world must reduce greenhouse gas concentrations, if we are to stay below the threshold that would usher in a catastrophic climate change "tipping point."

Communities are already feeling the impacts of climate change from extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy that devastated parts of New York in 2012. Vulnerable populations such as the poor, elderly and children are at increased risk of suffering from lethal heat waves, worsened air quality, flooding, and extended allergy seasons. The respected medical journal The Lancet has stated that the threat to human health from climate change is so great, it could undermine the last 50 years of gains in development and global health.

Air pollution from the oil and gas industry places our health at risk

Along with speeding up global warming, methane leaks are frequently accompanied by the leakage of other toxic pollutants, including VOCs, a class of chemicals that vaporize easily. Some are known to be carcinogenic; some are hazardous air pollutants.

Researchers have identified VOCs in air samples collected near fracking sites and associated infrastructure (pipelines and compressor stations) across five states: Arkansas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wyoming. Benzene, a carcinogen known to cause multiple forms of leukemia was one of the most common airborne chemicals detected. The University of Colorado Denver School of Public Health found elevated risks of cancer for residents living within half a mile of fracking sites. Over 74,000 people are within a half-mile of an oil or gas facility on public lands.

VOCs are also important in the formation of ground-level ozone, a costly and widespread public health risk. Releases of VOCs (including methane) from oil and gas drilling mix with nitrogen oxides from the exhaust of diesel-fueled equipment and trucks used in those operations to form ground-level ozone. Exposure to ground-level ozone can multiply the risk of asthma, heart disease and significantly increase the chance of premature death.

Over the last few years, the U.S. has made gains toward addressing the serious threat that methane pollution poses to our health and the health of the climate. BLM’s methane and waste prevention regulation reduces methane leakage and allows the U.S. to keep moving forward in the climate change deterrence game. For the sake of our health and our future, we can't afford to go backward. We need your help to defend them.

Tell your senators to oppose any attempts to repeal methane protections.

Kathy Attar is the toxics program manager at Physicians for Social Responsibility.

 

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