GUEST VIEW: Green activists are full of hot air

The Trump administration recently rolled back an Obama-era environmental rule that restricted oil and natural gas drilling. Almost immediately, the Environmental Defense Fund, California, and New Mexico sued to block the move.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra warned the administration’s rollback “risks the air our children breathe.”

Children can breathe easy — and so can adults. The old “Waste Prevention Rule” governing methane emissions was counterproductive. Forcing energy firms to comply with its onerous red tape would have harmed workers and discouraged natural gas production, which benefits the environment.

Energy companies often capture methane, the main component in natural gas, when they’re drilling for crude oil. This methane byproduct is valuable, so companies try to sell it whenever possible.

But sometimes, safety concerns or a lack of available pipeline capacity compels firms to burn the gas instead. This practice, known as “flaring,” prevents dangerous gas buildups in wells. Similarly, firms sometimes have to release the gas, a practice known as “venting.” 

The Waste Prevention Rule, which was finalized by the Bureau of Land Management in 2016 but delayed by the Trump administration, aimed to discourage venting and flaring. It forced energy companies on public and Indian lands to upgrade their equipment and pay royalties on any flared or vented gas.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the technology and infrastructure upgrades required by the old rule would have been prohibitively expensive for many producers. This is especially true of those operating so-called “marginal” wells — which produce no more than 90,000 cubic feet of gas per day, and thus aren’t as profitable. 

More than 70 percent of oil and gas wells on federal land are classed as “marginal.” If the rule had forced these wells to close, America’s natural gas production would fall. If all marginal wells were shut down, over 240,000 Americans could have lost their jobs.

Ironically, the environment would suffer from such shutdowns. Thanks to new technologies such as fracking and horizontal drilling, America’s natural gas production has soared in the past decade.

This surge in natural gas supplies has caused prices to plummet. As a result, many utility companies have transitioned from using dirty, more expensive coal to cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas to generate electricity. Thanks to this shift, domestic carbon dioxide emissions recently hit their lowest levels in 25 years.

By limiting natural gas production, the Waste Production Rule would have incentivized utilities to continue relying on dirty coal, thereby harming the environment.

The rule was also unnecessary. Controlling methane emissions is already a priority for oil and gas companies. Methane emissions have dropped 16 percent over the past quarter-century even as natural gas production has increased 50 percent.

In 2017, The Environmental Partnership, composed of nearly 30 domestic oil and gas companies, launched a comprehensive methane reduction program based on EPA guidelines. Similarly, the international Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, which includes BP, Shell, and Saudi Aramco, recently committed to reducing methane emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

The Trump administration is rolling back a rule that threatened our economy and our environment without delivering any significant benefits to the planet. The green activists fighting this much-needed reform need to calm down and take some deep breaths. And they needn’t worry — the air will be just as clean as before.

Paul Gessing is president of the Rio Grande Foundation, an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting liberty, opportunity and prosperity for New Mexico. This piece originally ran in RealClearEnergy.