According to the International Energy Agency's 2019 report on world energy, coal methane emissions are equal to annual international shipping and aviation emissions.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a proposal that would loosen methane emission regulations in the oil and gas industry. This decision by the Trump administration follows a series of moves weakening environmental protections.
The current standards require oil and gas companies to regularly monitor and repair methane leaks, the largest greenhouse gas emission after carbon dioxide.
The rollback decreases monitoring levels, resulting in the leaking of 4.5 million tons of methane emissions — all of which are preventable if the current standards are upheld.
The EPA's argument for their revised methane standards is that the new initiative saves small and mid-sized energy companies money by not conducting regular tests.
However, the long-term economic and environmental downfall due to rising methane emissions may outweigh the immediate economic impact of deregulation.
Legal analysts believe that the undoing of protective policies may lead to legal trouble.
The Trump administration's decision states the rollback will improve economic conditions for small and mid-sized energy businesses, which must invest significant amounts of finance to repair leaks.
The rollback is considered a victory for the oil and gas industry, but it may hurt larger companies transitioning to natural gas from coal.
The coronavirus pandemic economically damaged fossil fuel companies, including producers of shale gas. Shale gas production in North America accounts for a third of global methane emissions annually.
Fossil fuel companies are realizing that the likelihood of oil and gas remaining the main energy sources for the next century is implausible.
The largest oil and gas companies in the world, including Exxon Mobil and BP, have voiced disagreement with the new ruling.
Fossil fuel industry leaders have invested millions of dollars into cleaner energy technology, including natural gas.
They worry that the administration's loosening of regulation on methane leaks will damage the marketing message around natural gas.
The EPA's methane standards could damage their corporate responsibility messages that address climate change.
Many companies, including Shell, ExxonMobil and BP, are investing more in renewable and alternative forms of power as the energy economy transforms.
While the Trump administration's rollback of methane emissions may benefit them during the downturn due to the global pandemic, the long-term consequences will be far-reaching.
The EPA's decision to rollback methane standards will likely stand unless there is a Democratic majority in the Senate this coming election cycle.
The decision's timing is likely political, as Trump looks for the support of the oil and gas industry just prior to the election.
However, dissenting voices from the energy industry demonstrate that key players in the fossil fuel economy disagree with the rollback.
Additionally, legal experts believe that the new standards may be an easy target for litigation, saying that deregulation may have a hard time standing in court.
This will not be the first time that the court has overruled an environmental protection law under the current administration.
Previous EPA decisions, mostly regarding violations of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, have been overruled in court.
Experts predict that the EPA's explanation of benefits for deregulating methane emissions may not be foolproof in a legal setting.
Essentially, the argument that the economic benefit for smaller and mid-sized energy companies outweighs the effects of global methane emissions may not be easily upheld.
If this is the case, the previous standards may be reinstated sooner rather than later. The timing of this will have huge implications for greenhouse gas emission levels and their effects on the global population.
To understand the significance of this rollback, it is necessary to learn about the role of methane in global warming.
Behind carbon dioxide, methane emissions are the second-largest source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. In the last 20 years, the largest increase in emissions in the world came from the oil and gas sector in the United States.
New research also confirms that EPA emission estimates are consistently lower than reports according to the fossil fuel industry.
The results are astounding. According to the International Energy Agency's 2019 report on world energy, coal methane emissions are equal to annual international shipping and aviation emissions.
Methane emissions contribute to ozone, leading to health issues such as cardiovascular disease.
The effects of methane emissions are disproportionately found in lower-income communities, who are often most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
The latest move to deregulate environmental protections by the EPA shows an alliance between the current administration and the fossil fuel industry.
However, dissent from the leading voices in the oil and gas sector demonstrates that deregulation may not be as welcome as desired.
The rollbacks may also be vulnerable in court due to the inconclusive reasoning that removing methane emission protections is economically viable for energy companies.
To fight climate change, methane emissions need to be more closely monitored, not deregulated.
About the Author
Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.