House budget bill would gut regulations on methane emissions

The House Appropriations Committee has recommended that action be taken on H.R. 5538, a bill that would prohibit federal agencies from regulating methane emissions in the oil and gas sector.

On June 21st, the House Appropriations Committee recommended that action be taken on H.R. 5538, also known as the Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act. If signed into law, the act would make funding appropriations for the EPA, Department of the Interior, and other agencies related to environmental regulation. While this is a budget bill, it includes a long list of anti-environmental riders that would drastically reduce the ability of the federal government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, including prohibiting agencies from developing and implementing regulations on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.

Methane is a hydrocarbon,greenhouse gas, and the primary component in natural gas. It is often found alongside petroleum sources, which means it can make its way into the atmosphere during the production, processing, and transport of natural gas and petroleum. According to the EPA, natural gas and petroleum systems account for33 percent of U.S. methane emissions (other major sources include agricultural practices, landfills, and coal mining). While methane is shorter-lived in the atmosphere than CO2, its warming effects are 87 times more powerful over a 20-year period.  Additionally, climate models predict that methane emissions can result in increases in stratospheric water vapor, which contributes significantly to climate change.

According to the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, over a five-year period more than 375 billion cubic feet of natural gas was lost to flaring, venting, and leaks– enough to power 5.1 million U.S. homes for a year. Major players in the oil and gas industry report that only about 0.13 percent of natural gas produced in the U.S. is wasted, but a report by the Government Accountability Office shows that the amount of gas wasted could be up to 30 times higher. The EPA estimates that about 40 percent of lost natural gas could be captured economically and with existing technology. In terms of effects on climate, this is the equivalent of 16.5 million metric tons of CO2, or the annual emissions of more than three million cars.

USMethaneEmissionsTimeSeries_crop

Methane emissions have fallen by 6% since 1990, but remain high enough to contribute significantly to climate change. Current annual emissions are around around 730 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents. Source: EPA.gov

In addition to the climate change effects of methane emissions, these practices also lead to increased global and regional pollution. Venting, flaring, and leaking of natural gas give off a variety of dangerous pollutants, such as benzene, ethyl benzene, formaldehyde, and acetaldehyde, which have been linked to a variety of health effects including some cancers, respiratory diseases, birth defects, anemia, and neurological disorders. Gases such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are also released, contributing to the formation of acid rain. Acid rain can decrease soil health and acidify lakes and streams, damaging local ecosystems and croplands. It also accelerates the breakdown of building materials, increasing the costs of houses and infrastructure. Reduction of these pollutants has the potential to save lives and reduce healthcare costs in addition to cost-savings associated with ecosystem services preserved by mitigating climate change and reducing pollution.

Methane emissions from oil extraction present an additional problem: existing regulations allow companies operating on federal and tribal lands to waste a natural resource without paying royalties on the value of lost natural gas. This amounts to a loss of government revenue as well as an additional subsidy for oil companies that are not interested in investing in the infrastructure needed to capture natural gas at the extraction site.  Existing oil and gas subsidies already put an unnecessary burden on taxpayers and incentivize the extraction of oil and gas in lieu of more sustainable energy sources. A study by environmental group Friends of the Earth found that the Bureau of Land Management subsidized the flaring of $524 million worth of natural gas in the state of North Dakota alone, resulting in lost royalties of nearly $66 million. Regulation of methane emissions would generate revenue for the federal government and tribes, which could be used to fund government programs, lower the deficit, and reduce the tax burden on the general population.

Early this year, the EPA finalized new rules to regulate the amount of methane wasted for existing oil and gas systems, and the Bureau of Land Management proposed similar rules for regulating future oil and gas systems on federal and tribal lands. The proposed rules would prohibit venting of natural gas, limit flaring at oil wells, require companies to detect and repair leaks, and require operators to submit comprehensive gas capture plans when they apply for drilling permits. Evident in H.R. 5538, these proposals have come under attack by industry leaders and members of Congress who believe the additional regulations amount to federal overreach and would have a negative impact on the economy. The bill explicitly prohibits the EPA and Department of the Interior from developing and implementing regulations on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.

Many environmental organizations oppose the gutting of these regulations that will occur if H.R. 5538 is passed. Green America and 37 other environmental organizations have signed on to a letter to Congress explicitly stating our opposition. We believe that strong federal regulation of greenhouse gases is paramount to furthering the goals of climate change mitigation, a healthy population, and a sustainable energy future.

Tell the EPA & DOT: I Want 54.5 MPG!

Last November, the Obama administration proposed strengthening fuel efficiency and carbon pollution standards for new cars and light trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 -– a serious step towards ending our addiction to oil and cutting carbon pollution.

Now we need to show them that we support these strong standards. The deadline for public comments is Monday, February 13th!

Our allies at “SaveOurEnvironment.org” have made it easy for you to make your voice here.  Their page on this issue includes ways to send a message to the EPA, the DOT, your elected representatives, and letters to the editor.

Tell the EPA and the Department of Transportation that you support the strong 54.5 mpg standards President Obama has proposed.

Southern Company: Still # 1

Yesterday, the EPA released a highly detailed assessment of global warming emissions in the United States for the year 2010.  Not surprisingly, utilities topped the list, producing 72 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.  Also, not surprisingly, Southern Company was the biggest offender.  Southern Company owns the three most polluting coal-fired power plants in the nation, starting with its Scherer power plant, based in Juliette, Georgia, which released 23 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2010.

Of course the climate emissions from Southern Company’s plants are only the beginning. These same plants are also responsible for enormous environmental and health impacts overall.  From the mining of the coal, to its burning, to the storing of the toxic sludge that remains, coal-fired power is the most damaging form of power production.  Southern Company’s leadership in creating these hazards, as well as its leadership in lobbying to preserve the status quo, are all highlighted in Green America’s report, Leadership We Can Live Without, which we released in May 2100.

Some utilities, including Southern Company, claim that they will simply sequester the carbon dioxide from their plants underground to address climate change.  This is not a reasonable solution.  Sequestration will not address all the other hazards of burning coal.  It is also too expensive to be a practical solution to global warming.

The reality is that Southern Company and other highly-polluting utilities need to shift away from coal-fired power to cleaner sources of energy and energy efficiency.  At their annual shareholder meeting in 2011 (which Green America attended and where we spoke out about the huge environmental and health impacts of Southern Company’s reliance on coal), the company pledged to reduce its reliance on coal from approximately 60 percent of its power generation to 40 percent.  This is an important first step, but now Southern Company needs to be held to this promise, and needs to meet its targets through energy efficiency, solar, wind, and other clean energy sources.  Join with Green America in calling on Southern Company to green its energy supply.  Take our action to tell Southern Company to stop being a leader in climate change and other harms, and to start leading on renewables and energy efficiency instead.

Obama Must Reject the Keystone XL Pipeline

The following post is re-published from Green America’s syndicated opinion column, which appears in newspapers around the country.  For reprint permission, please e-mail andrew at green america dot org.

Here’s a chance for the president to uphold that campaign pledge to “end the tyranny of oil” in the United States. (For more on the Nov. 6 day of action, click here.)

The seven members of Congress who signed a strongly worded letter to an Obama cabinet official on October 5 raised serious concerns about the administration’s cozy relationship with a high-profile energy company.

“Rather than acting as fair arbiters of [the company’s] application…State Department officials appear to have acted as little more than cheerleaders for the company’s bid,” Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Tim Ryan (D-OH), and the other lawmakers wrote.

Is this the newest development in the Solyndra solar company’s loan-guarantee debacle? No. The seven lawmakers were concerned about an energy project with the potential to do much more damage than a loan guarantee for a failed solar start-up ever could. Continue reading “Obama Must Reject the Keystone XL Pipeline”

2 New Developments on Keystone XL Pipeline Today

Two new twists today in the saga of the the Keystone XL Pipeline: Seven House Democrats came out in opposition to the pipeline, three environmental organizations filed suit in Nebraska to halt its construction. 

In September, 5,000 small businesses from Green America’s business network and the Green Chamber of Commerce weighed in on the pipeline, sending a letter to President Obama urging him to focus on clean energy technologies and to reject a new Canadian tar sands pipeline that keeps us dependent on fossil fuels.

Extraction and refinement of oil sands are more greenhouse-gas intensive than conventional oil, with the EPA concluding that the Keystone XL  project could yield as much as 1.15 billion tons of additional greenhouse gases. Plus, the pipeline travels through America’s agricultural heartland and could threaten the drinking water of 2 million people, in the event of a BP-style spill.

The State Department’s final public hearing on the project is coming up this Friday in Washington, DC.

The True Cost of Coal

The American Economic Review has just published a paper, “Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy,” which highlights the economic costs of air pollution versus economic benefits for several industries.  While the paper is fairly dense (and there is a cost to download it), the authors make clear that the economic harms of coal-fired power far outweigh its economic benefits.  In fact, coal has the worst cost benefit ratio of several polluting industries profiled, including solid waste combustion, sewage treatment, and stone quarrying (which also create more economic harms than benefits).  The authors of this study are just looking at the air-pollution harms of coal, which leaves aside the many other health and environmental harms caused by coal-fired power plants.  If you add those in, it is exceedingly clear that coal has a major negative impact on the US economy.

In fact, a study published earlier this year by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, and written by faculty at the Center for Health and Global Environment at  Harvard Medical School, found that the true cost of coal is up to ½ trillion dollars per year, when all environmental and health impacts are added in.  Based on this true cost accounting, all clean energy sources are much cheaper than coal.  Of course, if you consider the fact that some of the economic harms of coal literally result from people dying, the need to transition our energy mix away from coal becomes even more urgent.

You can help end coal-fired power in the US.  Please join Green America in telling Southern Company, one of our most polluting utilities, that it needs to move rapidly away from coal to clean energy and energy efficiency! Take action with us today!

Cyclists Faster Than a Plane in CA

The recent temporary shut-down of interstate 405 in California prompted a range of responses from those who normally depend on highway driving for their commutes.  When JetBlue began offering cheap — and wasteful, and carbon-intensive — flights across the city from Long Beach to Burbank, a group of intrepid cyclists took to the streets to demonstrate the superiority of burning calories over burning carbon.  From the NPR report: 

The flights inspired a group of cyclists to challenge JetBlue to a race. Members of the Wolfpack Hustle planned to peddle on a roughly 40-mile route starting near the Burbank airport to see whether they or a JetBlue passenger will reach Long Beach first.

Cycling advocates said they hope to show that gridlock can be avoided without using a car or plane.

“Everyone’s freaking out about car traffic around the 405, bicycling represents a very viable alternative,” cyclist Gary Kavanagh said.

The result?  Leaving their homes at the same time as a blogger who intended to run the security gauntlet at the airport and catch a flight, the cyclists arrived at their destination before the flight even took off.  

To make your own bike-related climate statement in California this fall, consider joining Green America on the Climate Ride, October 2 – 6, from Eureka to San Francisco.