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Trump’s EPA gives the oil and gas industry more leeway on climate-changing methane

The Environmental Protection Agency issued new rules making it easier for oil and gas companies to release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. It's the Trump administration's third major step to roll back regulations aimed at combating global warming and climate change. William Brangham learns more from Coral Davenport of The New York Times.

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  • William Brangham:

    The Trump administration has taken its third major step to roll back the regulations that are meant to curb the greenhouse gases that cause global warming and climate change.

    The Environmental Protection Agency today issued new rules making it easier for oil and gas companies to release methane, which is a particularly potent greenhouse gas.

    Coral Davenport has been covering the story for The New York Times.

    Welcome back.

  • Coral Davenport:

    Great to be with you.

  • William Brangham:

    So, the Obama administration, the earlier administration, had said to oil and gas companies, monitor the methane that's leaking out of your operations and do what you can to cap it.

    Before we talk about what the Trump administration has done, remind us, why do we care about methane?

  • Coral Davenport:

    So, usually, when you talk about the greenhouse gases that warm the planet, you think about carbon dioxide, the stuff that comes from burning oil and gas-driving cars, from burning coal-fired power plants.

    Methane doesn't get as much attention. It's only about 9 percent of the human-caused greenhouse gases. But it matters a lot because methane is 25 percent more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping that heat. So there's a lot less of it. It's not caused by as many elements, as many sectors of the economy. But once it gets it gets out there, it's a really potent driver of greenhouse — of greenhouse gas warming. It's sort of a super greenhouse gas.

    So it's a big deal.

  • William Brangham:

    And what did the Trump administration do today?

  • Coral Davenport:

    So, specifically, they went back to that 2016 Obama era regulation on methane emissions. They're mainly leaks from oil and gas drilling wells.

    The Obama regulation said that oil and gas companies have to put a — put in place a strict schedule of monitoring and detecting these leaks, and then said, once you detect a leak, you have 30 days to plug it up.

    And for most oil and gas wells, the Obama regulation said, you have — you have to monitor the leak every six months. So the Trump administration went back and amended that rule. It stretched out the timetable for monitoring, in some cases to as long as two years.

    Given how potent methane is, how much heat it traps, that can actually add up to quite a lot of sort of more powerful warming.

  • William Brangham:

    As you reported in your story, the energy industry said that the Obama rules were way too burdensome, red tape — the incarnation of red tape, I believe someone said to you.

    They said that trapping this method is very difficult for them to do. How true is that? Is that — is it difficult to keep a handle on these leaks?

  • Coral Davenport:

    It's expensive, absolutely.

    The oil and gas industry complained, especially — so many oil and gas operations are out in remote, difficult-to-access locations. Getting out there every six months, getting out there frequently, they needed to hire more people, they needed to spend more money.

    The environmentalists who pushed for these regulations said, look, this is also an industry that clocks in billions of dollars in profits annually. So, that's a significant little bite, but it doesn't — it doesn't — it doesn't put any company at risk.

  • William Brangham:

    Right. They're arguing the benefit is much greater.

  • Coral Davenport:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    Lastly, this coming on the heels of the Trump administration changing auto emission standards, the rules on coal-fired power plants, I mean, this has been the administration's mantra all.

    President Trump stepped away from the Paris accords. He said that climate change is a hoax. I mean, this should be not a surprise really to anyone, right?

  • Coral Davenport:

    It's not surprising that the Trump administration is going after another set of climate change regulations.

    President Trump campaigned on this. He specifically campaign on helping the oil and gas industry. What is sort of surprising and interesting is how effectively and efficiently they're doing these — these regulatory rollbacks.

    So much of this administration's policy agenda is — is sort of dysfunctional or chaotic. So many proposals have kind of flailed or are still sort of dysfunctional or in chaos, whereas the move to roll back these regulations, particularly on climate change, are — they're being done correctly. They're going through the right channels.

    They will be challenged in court, but it's really interesting to see that, quietly and under the radar, while the president himself seems mainly focused on the Russia investigation, this piece of the policy agenda is chugging along and making a difference.

  • William Brangham:

    Coral Davenport of The New York Times, thank you so much.

  • Coral Davenport:

    Great to be with you.

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