Rejecting the urging of the Trump administration by a razor-thin margin, the U.S. Senate voted 51-49 Wednesday to uphold an Obama-era regulation to limit methane emissions from oil and gas production on federal lands.
The rule requires producers to capture the methane currently leaking, vented, or flared from field operations, and return it to their product stream. Methane is up to 80 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas over a 20-year period, and the volumes that leak from myriad sources along gas and oil supply chains are enormous. By one calculation, US$330 million in taxpayer-owned natural gas leaks from the industry’s American facilities every year—enough for taxpayers to miss out on $800 million in royalties over a decade.
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The Senate vote was “a huge win for our health, our clean air, and our climate,” League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski told supporters in an email, showing that Trump’s plans to “unravel hard-won environmental protections are not a foregone conclusion.”
He credited a campaign in which “LCV members signed more than 60,000 petitions [and] flooded Senate offices with thousands of calls,” and thanked “each and every senator who stood up against big polluters today and defended common sense safeguards from methane pollution.” The Wilderness Society and the U.S. Sierra Club took similar victory laps on their own email networks.
A year ago, officials in Canada and the United States fêted the “global win” when the two countries agreed to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas facilities by 40 to 45% from 2012 levels by 2025. The United States released an initial rule in May 2016, and Canada’s government promised to implement its own regulation by 2020. Both initiatives had fallen into doubt with the arrival of the new administration in Washington, DC.
The Trump administration, backed by furious lobbying by fossil fuel interests, had encouraged Congress to use the time-limited powers of the Congressional Review Act to roll back several Bureau of Land Management regulations released in the last months of the Obama administration. And the White House clearly expected the methane rule to be among them. In anticipation that the rule might fall in the United States, Canada’s Environment and Climate Minister Catherine McKenna announced last month that the country would delay regulation until 2023.
But the U.S. Senate surprised on Wednesday, when Sen. John McCain (AZ) joined fellow Republicans Lindsey Graham (SC) and Susan Collins (ME) to defeat the repeal resolution. Congress’ powers to revoke existing regulations under the Review Act expired yesterday, the day after the Senate methane vote.
Had the vote passed, not only would it have revoked the rule, it would have effectively “prevented similar regulations from being introduced” in the future, Reuters reports—a concern that especially troubled McCain. “While I am concerned that the rule may be onerous, passage of the resolution would have prevented the federal government, under any administration, from issuing a rule that is ‘similar,’” McCain said in a statement.
U.S. media also speculated that McCain was miffed at Trump’s peremptory firing of FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday, and switched his vote on the methane resolution at the last minute.