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The Trump administration announced new methane rules, which roll back rules President Obama had put into place to reduce pollution, capture methane for sale, and slow down climate change. Aaron Mintzes of Earthworks explains the implications

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GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert, coming to you from Baltimore.

This week, the Trump administration rolled back rules on methane gas emissions. The move is just the latest in a row of measures to deregulate the Obama era’s relatively modest efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The new rules would no longer require oil and gas companies to capture leaked methane, to repair outdated leak detection equipment or to come up with new plans to reduce methane waste. The Interior Department argued that the new rules will help the industry avoid costly, duplicative red tape. Also, they say that states already have sufficiently strong regulation in place, making federal regulation unnecessary.

Joining me now to take a closer look at what the methane deregulation means is Aaron Mintzes. Aaron is Senior Policy Counsel for the group Earthworks and has researched and lobbied at all levels of government on a variety of environmental issues. Thanks for joining us today, Aaron.

AARON MINTZES: Thank you very much, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: So, let’s start with the justification that the Trump administration provided for rolling back these Obama era rules, that they require too much red tape and that they are unnecessarily duplicating state regulations. What’s your response to this argument?

AARON MINTZES: Well, these rules save money, these rules save the industry money. The whole idea of these rules is to capture the very gas that they wish to sell to market. And so, the notion that this is somehow a compliance burden for them is laughable, considering that what we know from existing states; Colorado, Wyoming, California, a number of states with a very robust and a long history of oil and gas development, is the kinds of state regulations that a lot of the industry have been able to save money and comply very easily with some of the regulations that the states already have.

And so, what the BLM has done is just say all of us should earn money from the minerals that otherwise the industry would just burn away. And that’s what really this rule is supposed to be about. And what the Trump administration has done is provided a huge giveaway to the oil and gas industry. This thing’s been on their target list for a long time. So, their ultimate justification is that they think that that is going to reduce some burden for the industry. In fact, the truth is that we know from the evidence that the industry prefers this kind of rule because it gives them the kind of regulatory certainty they need to be able to produce the minerals, produce our minerals from our lands.

GREG WILPERT: And then what about the argument that states already have sufficient regulations in place, that there is no need for federal regulation?

AARON MINTZES: Some states have it, and we know that it works. Other states don’t. And that’s why we need a federal floor to ensure that all states- that when we’re talking about the people’s minerals, that we are getting a fair return for our minerals. In addition to that, that says nothing really about the climate and public health and environmental impacts that rolling back this rule actually creates. But ultimately, what we see from the practical application is that compliance costs are not burdening the industry.

What’s really burdening the industry is the attempts to go back and forth on what the rules really are supposed to be. We see that in states where they have really important rules, in fact that the industry is really able to comply, and it actually saves the taxpayers and the industry money.

GREG WILPERT: And so, speaking, turning to the impact of this rollback, just how big of a problem is methane for the environment?

AARON MINTZES: Well, what we know is that the Bureau of Land Management decided not to actually tell us. We’ve got eighty thousand tons per year of volatile organic compounds that will now be admitted into the atmosphere. And rather than tell us what that will cost us in terms of public health and environment effects, they simply just said, “Well, we don’t really want to estimate that.” And when they don’t estimate that, that’s how they come to these numbers about, “Well, now we’re saving the industry money.” Because we’re not actually counting really what all the costs are.

One of the costs that they don’t count, in in addition to the public health and environment stuff, is the royalties, right? We’re going to be losing ten million dollars a year, or about nine point two, depending, up to nine million dollars a year on annual royalty loss. And so, when you don’t count how much eighty thousand tons per year of volatile organic compounds creates in terms of asthma and other public health effects, and when you don’t count the social cost of methane, social cost of carbon that climate change brings with the rollback of these kinds of rules, then all of a sudden you see why they’re minimizing the actual impact of what’s really going to happen with this rollback.

GREG WILPERT: I guess also one of the other impacts is the heat trapping effects of methane, right? Can you say something about that? I understand it’s something like eighty times or so more, traps heat more effectively, basically. What does that mean, basically?

AARON MINTZES: Methane captures a lot of heat, a lot more heat than carbon does. And scientists are working on exactly what that number is. So, here’s the real problem. Scientists know that methane traps about eighty-seven- I’ve also seen ninety times as much heat as carbon would over a twenty-year period, and that’s really what’s important. It’s the short term, the short-lived climate pollutants like methane that are really going to pack the biggest punch over the short term. And Greg, the important thing is we only have the short term. The government, though, says that it’s twenty-five times.

Methane dissipates in the atmosphere over a period of time. And so, over one hundred years it’s like twenty-five times more than carbon. But over the short term, the twenty years, it’s more like eighty-five, eighty-seven, ninety times more potent of global warming gas. And so, that’s where the real danger is with methane. It’s a short-term boost to the climate heat.

GREG WILPERT: So, tell us also, how does this methane deregulation fit into the larger context of the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle environmental regulations? I mean, what have been the other efforts to dismantle regulations so far, and where does this leave us with this latest move?

AARON MINTZES: Well, this has been on the target list for the Trump administration ever since they came into office. They issued an executive order right away, March in 2017, putting this rule and other similar rules like the EPA methane rule in their sights. In May of 2017, Congress tried to repeal this rule entirely and that attempt failed. And I think it’s important for folks to know that when Congress had the opportunity to repeal this rule entirely, they refused. They kept this rule in place because they recognize that it does have public health and environmental benefits. But that wasn’t enough for the administration.

They first tried to stay the BLM methane rule, and we took them to court and they lost. Then they tried to do another stay of the BLM methane rule, and we took them to court and we received an injunction. So that case is still being- but it looks like we have a likelihood of winning that on the merits as well. So, this is part of their whole scheme to try to undo all of the previous administration’s energy and environment rules to protect public health and the environment.

GREG WILPERT: So, speaking actually of the litigation, what are environmental groups now planning to do about this latest rollback? I mean, the rules already have been, as you mentioned, tied up in litigation, both from the industry to stop its implementation and from groups such as yours to implement it. Are you planning on taking the Trump administration to court over this issue as well?

AARON MINTZES: The states of California and New Mexico have already brought suit, in the Northern District of California, I think it was a couple days ago. And as far as us, as I said, we already have pending litigation on the second attempt to stay this rule, that is before that court. And in terms of bringing a separate action on this decision, we’re considering our legal options.

GREG WILPERT: Well, we’re going to continue to follow this of course. I was speaking to Aaron Mintzes, senior policy counsel for the group Earthworks. Thanks again, Aaron, for having joined us today.

AARON MINTZES: Thank you, Greg. I really appreciate it.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.