THE SENATE last week delivered a surprise victory for environmentalists. Three Republicans joined with several energy-state Democrats to slow the Trump era’s wave of deregulation, preventing Congress from killing one of the Obama administration’s most rational global warming rules. Now the action turns to the Interior Department, which is reviewing the same regulation that just survived Congress’s scrutiny. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who insists he shares Teddy Roosevelt’s commitment to stewardship, should show similar restraint.
The Methane and Waste Prevention Rule concerns methane emissions from oil and gas drilling on federal land. As the primary component in natural gas, methane is a valuable commodity. When drillers allow it to waft uselessly into the air, national resources are wasted and the government loses royalties that belong to the taxpayer. Uncombusted methane is also an extremely potent greenhouse gas. Controlling unnecessary methane emissions — and, therefore, the net impact that using natural gas has on climate change — is essential to ensuring that the nation’s recent gas boom does more good than harm to the environment.
The centrists who stopped Congress from withdrawing the Obama-era rule focused on the concern that the Treasury would be shortchanged absent federal effort to stop methane leaks. “Between 2009 and 2015, oil and gas wells on federally-owned lands vented or flared approximately 462 billion cubic feet of natural gas into the atmosphere, a substantial loss of royalties to the American taxpayer,” Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) wrote in a letter to Mr. Zinke.
But these senators do not favor keeping the rule as it stands. In the same letter, they complained that some of the rule’s requirements duplicated state-level regulations and that Native American authorities were not properly consulted. They asked Mr. Zinke to modify the regulation through administrative action.
This is the better path, if the rule must change: Reform through executive, not congressional, procedures means that future administrations will be able to revisit whatever determinations Mr. Zinke ends up making. Moreover, using the Congressional Review Act would have barred Mr. Zinke from issuing a “substantially similar” replacement rule. Now Mr. Zinke has flexibility to adjust the rule modestly rather than aggressively.
Modesty on Mr. Zinke’s part would be wise. The existing rule not only ensures that the government receives more in royalties but also controls damaging emissions. If methane leaks were environmentally costless, drillers should only be expected to prevent leaks up to the point past which doing so would cost them money. Because drillers’ methane leaks exact environmental costs on society at large, it is reasonable to ask them to tighten up their operations beyond that point. Mr. Zinke should aim to write a rule that reflects both direct monetary concerns and society’s broader interest in preventing environmental degradation.
Increased use of natural gas in the country’s power plants has led recently to surprisingly deep greenhouse- gas emissions cuts in the United States — on paper, at least. If lots of methane leaks in the process of obtaining the fuel, the country’s natural gas renaissance will look more like a dark age.
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