The Senate just took a step toward actually lowering US greenhouse gas emissions

The Senate on Wednesday took an important step forward on limiting emissions — and meeting its commitments to curb global warming — by voting to limit the unbridled release of methane molecules, often a byproduct of natural gas production, into the atmosphere.

The 52-42 vote reinstates the Oil and Natural Gas New Source Performance Standards, a handful of Obama-era regulations on methane emissions rolled back by former President Donald Trump in August 2020. The measure drew support from every Senate Democrat, as well as Republican Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), who has opposed GOP efforts to deregulate methane emissions in the past; Lindsey Graham (R-SC); and Rob Portman (R-OH). The rule is expected to be taken up and passed by the House of Representatives in May.

The standards alone won’t be sufficient to meet President Joe Biden’s pledge to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2030 — a goal meant to help keep global warming this century to 1.5 degrees Celsius — but it represents an important step toward meeting that commitment, given that methane is increasingly seen as a driver of climate change. The vote did not receive the support of 10 Republicans — the number Democrats need, barring any changes to the filibuster, to pass more sweeping climate legislation — but the fact three GOP senators signed on suggests Democrats have at least some hope of winning over Republicans on at least some climate-related issues.

This rule change required only 51 “yes” votes, as Democrats took advantage of the Congressional Review Act, which allows legislators to undo laws passed by previous administrations in their lame-duck periods with a simple majority in each chamber of Congress. It’s filibuster-proof. Trump’s methane regulation, adopted by the EPA last summer, is the first rule for which Democrats are using the legislative procedure, which Republicans used 14 times in the first 16 weeks of Trump’s presidency four years ago.

When it comes to oil and natural gas pipelines, methane leaks are disconcertingly common and a major contributor to the methane currently in the atmosphere. Obama’s regulations, passed in 2016, were meant to change that; they required energy companies to monitor pipelines for leaks and plug any they found. Bringing those regulations back is “absolutely common sense,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a cosponsor of the resolution, said at a Tuesday press conference.

Notably, some energy companies, including BP, Shell, and Exxon, are on record as being on board with increased methane regulation. Heinrich said that’s because complying with its rules would actually save money: Pristine pipes and plugged-up leaks lead to higher yields and greater profits, enough that the costs of securing infrastructure are offset.

And Dan Zimmerle, a senior research associate in the Energy Institute at Colorado State University, said companies also appreciate methane regulations because they lead to increased accountability, making methane — a major component of natural gas, which is often promoted as an alternative to coal — seem safer to consume than it actually is.

“The largest threat to natural gas is not the cost of regulation, it’s the reputation of natural gas,” Zimmerle said.

Republicans, with the noted exception of Collins, Graham, and Portman, have thus far opposed any attempts at energy regulation, including this one, arguing that there are other, less regulatory and more business-friendly ways to take care of the climate. But Democrats argue that regulation of greenhouse gases is critical — and that without it, the United States will fail to ward off the dangers of climate change.

Why reducing methane emissions is critical, briefly explained

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer cast the Senate’s move as “one of the most important votes, not only that this Congress has cast but has been cast in the last decade, in terms of our fight against global warming.”

In a lot of ways, Schumer is right.

Greenhouse gases work by inhibiting the free movement of the sun’s rays that heat the Earth. Gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane absorb the radiation that comes up from the Earth’s surface toward space, trapping it. If emissions continue to increase at the current rate, the atmosphere could warm by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The results could be catastrophic.

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The problem with methane is that it traps heat incredibly effectively — about 25 times more effectively than carbon dioxide, according to the EPA. While it accounts for only about 16 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, the manner in which it traps heat means any significant reduction would likely have a positive impact on climate change.

Limiting emissions, as the rules change would, helps address the fact that methane’s presence in the atmosphere is increasing exponentially as a byproduct of human activities such as farming and energy production. In fact, even as the world locked down amid the Covid-19 pandemic, carbon dioxide and methane emissions hit record highs. And it’s possible they could rise further as countries begin to reopen.

All that makes methane reduction key to keeping global warming as low as possible. A 2021 report in Environmental Research Letters found that concerted efforts to reduce man-made methane emissions could decrease global warming by as much as 30 percent.

More methane regulation is needed

Given the current severity of methane emissions, many scientists worry the Obama-era regulations will never be enough to tangibly curb methane emissions.

Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University, was one of the scientists invited to give a briefing on methane emissions to senior White House staff in May 2016, just before the regulations were drawn up. Howarth said one issue with the Obama rules is that they’re missing mechanisms to verify that energy companies are complying with the regulations.

“Methane is a colorless, odorless gas; you can’t see it with the naked eye,” Howarth said. “A layperson can’t see — I can’t see — if the facility is leaking or not. If you don’t have an independent means by skilled people who are verifying what the emissions are, then you’re simply relying on industry to say ‘we’re taking care of it.’ That doesn’t work for me.”

Howarth argued it’s a loophole that can be closed with today’s technology. Microsatellites tuned to measure methane, managed and owned by global governments and private companies, can look for unchecked and unplugged methane emissions. That technology didn’t exist four years ago.

Zimmerle, the Colorado researcher, called the development promising but said that “there are other places, like gas schematics or a whole variety of other specific sources, where everybody knows the emissions are larger, but for whatever reason, they’re not the point of attention.”

There have been other, similar critiques about the limits of the Obama-era rules. For instance, some experts have noted the rules apply only to new extraction sites, leaving older, leaky sites to continue operating.

As senior Vox reporter Rebecca Leber has written, the Biden administration has acknowledged that just bringing back old regulations that don’t go far enough won’t suffice. Exactly how it plans to address the loopholes and reach its target is unclear, but the White House has promised to release details by September. In the meantime, however, the rules change represents a small step forward — and a little less methane in the air.