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Even major oil and gas companies favored the Obama-era regulations on the potent greenhouse gas, says EarthWorks’ Lauren Pagel

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DHARNA NOOR: It’s the Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.

The Trump administration on Thursday laid out a plan to roll back Obama era limits on oil and gas industry emissions of methane, which is one of the main pollutants that scientists link to the climate crisis. The Environmental Protection Agency said that easing the 2016 regulations would save energy companies up to $123 million through 2025. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas. It doesn’t stay in the atmosphere for as long as carbon dioxide, but it has more than 80 times the heat trapping potential of CO2 in the short term.

Now, joining me to talk about all of this is Lauren Pagel, who is the Senior Policy Director at Earthworks. Thanks so much for joining me, Lauren.

LAUREN PAGEL: Thank you for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: So the rollbacks that the EPA is proposing seem pretty extensive, pretty far reaching. They’d make it so oil and gas companies don’t have to limit methane leaks. They even call into question whether or not the EPA has the authority to regulate methane at all. Could you give us a little bit of a summary of the proposal?

LAUREN PAGEL: Yeah, so this is rolling back these important climate protections that the Obama administration put in place in 2016. It really just signals the ignorance of the Trump administration towards science and the climate crisis. That they would go about not just rolling back these important safeguards, which protect us from climate pollution, but also along with the methane comes volatile organic compounds, which have serious health impacts to folks that live near this oil and gas pollution. The Trump administration has decided that they don’t care about our climate, they don’t care about the health of people living near oil and gas facilities, and that they would rather just roll back everything the Obama administration has done.

DHARNA NOOR: Right, and this is particularly alarming because even before the EPA proposed easing these regulations, methane emissions have been on the rise. Your organization actually goes out into the field and documents methane pollution. What do you attribute that increase to, and what impact do those emissions have?

LAUREN PAGEL: The latest science says that there’s actually 60% more methane being admitted by the oil and gas industry than the EPA even knows about. Most of this is self-reported. We are out in the field with our optical gas imaging cameras, cameras that specifically detect methane and volatile organic compounds, and so that you can see methane pollution that you can’t see with the naked eye, but you can see with this camera. The industry is really just trying to get every inch of oil and gas out of the ground that they can, and they are disregarding the climate and health, and the Trump administration is helping them do it.

DHARNA NOOR: What are the activities that industry is undertaking that emit methane? Where is all this methane coming from, exactly, in the process?

LAUREN PAGEL: It’s the entire oil and gas production, fracking, transport, transmission. The methane is leaked, and not just leaked, but actually intentionally released throughout the entire process. The Obama administration rules were going to be the first attempt to put some safeguards on the oil and gas industry to make them clean up their act.

DHARNA NOOR: I understand that the administration is getting pushback, and not just from the environmental community, not just from folks like you. Some large energy companies like BP actually favor a federal regulation of methane, saying that regulatory certainty is preferable to this sort of patchwork of rules. Could you talk about the opposition that the EPA is facing and where it’s coming from?

LAUREN PAGEL: Yeah, so in addition to the environmental community and also the communities that live next to these facilities, the large oil and gas companies— Shell, BP, Exxon— have actually come out in favor of methane emission standards. Shell even going so far as, in an open letter to Trump, asking him not to roll back these important protections. Even though some of the biggest energy companies are supporting these rules, the Trump administration is still getting rid of them.

DHARNA NOOR: Right, and at last weekend’s G7 Summit in France, Trump was the only world leader to skip this meeting on climate change. He bragged about how much wealth the US generates from fossil fuel production. But if there’s so much opposition even from within the oil and gas industry, why would this administration propose to ease these rules? I mean, who’s going to make money on these rollbacks? Who’s supporting them?

LAUREN PAGEL: I think part of it is the administration honestly doesn’t believe the climate science, and doesn’t believe the communities who are dealing with these health impacts. There are some smaller, more independent oil and gas operators who want to just be able to do whatever they want, don’t want to have to control air pollution from their facilities because they are operating on such a razor thin margin, and they want to get all of this oil and gas out of the ground as quickly as possible. It’s easier for them to do it without having to put the best available control technology in place and actually go out there and look for leaks.

There are over 12 million people that live within a mile of an oil and gas well, and volatile organic compounds can have some serious impacts, especially on the most vulnerable populations— so children, pregnant mothers, the elderly. They can increase asthma rates, they can cause general things like nosebleeds, and some of these volatile organic compounds, such as benzene, are actually known carcinogens.

DHARNA NOOR: How strong were the Obama era limits on methane emissions? I understand that people were affected by those kinds of health impacts even while these emissions standards were in place. Should those have been stricter?

LAUREN PAGEL: The standards that the Obama administration put in place were actually just on new wells. So if you put a new well in the ground, you had to use the best available technology, and you had to actually go out there and find whether or not there was leaks coming from your facility. What the Obama administration didn’t do was regulate existing sources. And so, our hope had been that the next administration would take on those existing sources because that’s where most of the pollution is, and really put stronger regulations in place to control methane pollution.

DHARNA NOOR: I guess, just to wrap up, is there anything that could be done to stop these proposed rollbacks or, more generally, to take on the oil and gas industry and really make sure that these emissions are contained?

LAUREN PAGEL: Well, we are encouraging everyone to comment to the Trump administration and the EPA and encourage them not to roll back these regulations. We also are working with states such as New Mexico, and Colorado, and Pennsylvania, who are going to pick up some of the slack and put state rules in place. There is some hope there, but someone in Colorado doesn’t deserve cleaner air than someone in Texas, and that’s why federal standards for air pollution are so important. Our hope is that the next administration can tackle this issue and do it quickly.

DHARNA NOOR: Absolutely. Lauren Pagel, Senior Policy Director of Earthworks, as you continue your fight against the oil and gas industry and to limit these kinds of emissions, we’d love to have you on again. Thanks so much for being here today.

LAUREN PAGEL: You’re welcome. Thanks.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.