The puzzling push to allow pollution and waste on federal lands
by Allen Best
Donald Trump, in running for president, vowed to make public lands more accessible for oil-and-gas drilling. He also promised to roll back regulations. When it came to methane emissions, his anti-regulation agenda failed thanks to three Republicans in the U.S. Senate who walked across the partisan divide to preserve the Methane Waste Prevention Rule.
The rule, adopted by the Obama administration last November after three years of public review, requires companies operating on federal and Indian lands to look for and repair leaks, allows only minimal burning, and prohibits direct venting into the atmosphere. Proponents said the regulations can result in 40 to 45 percent of the gas otherwise wasted being captured.
What motivated this push to allow a valuable public resource to be wasted in a way that pollutes? Are we really desperate for the energy? The stock market was barreling along even before the election, and after the election it became delirious.
Energy is cheap. A decade ago, the peak oil argument was credible. A book about the same time was called “High Noon for Natural Gas.” It looked like end times for our fossil fuel-enabled civilization. Natural gas ran as high at $14.50 per million Btu and the gas we buy to fuel our cars ran over $4 in metropolitan Denver.
Now natural gas is running a little over $3 and the oil prices are running about $50 a barrel, meaning gas prices at Denver-area stations run about $2.30 per gallon for standard unleaded. Hydrocarbons have become so plentiful globally that OPEC continues to hold back production in an effort to raise prices.
Cheap energy enables waste. I see it almost every day. As I live near a busy commercial area, strangers park in front of my house constantly. Returning from yoga or shopping or the bar, many get in cars, turn on the engine, and then just sit there, idling, while scrolling through Facebook or whatever. Sometimes they sit idle for a half-hour while stinking up the neighborhood.
More unnerving was my recent visit to a nature-science school in Eagle County. The building housing the school has a LEED platinum certification, the very highest attainment for environmental performance. But in the parking lot was the very worst of environmental performance. A Cadillac Escalade pulled up next to me. It gets 15 miles per gallon in the city, 22 on the highway. Idling in a parking space, it gets even worse: zero miles per gallon. But that is what the driver was doing, thumbing through her smart phone on the best of spring days, neither warm nor cold. Cost was no issue.
In winter, on even the chilliest days, I see store doors constantly left wide open, to make them more inviting to shoppers. Ditto in summer, when the air conditioner is blasting. We heat the great outdoors in winter and cool it in summer.
The federal regulations were modeled on those adopted by Colorado in 2014. A survey by Keating Research issued in April 2016 found that 8 of 10 oil and gas company representatives interviewed said that they were profiting, coming out even, or paying out just a little more than they collected in new revenue. Certainly not onerous.
I consume both natural gas and oil, and I recognize that all energy extraction and production has impacts. So does renewable energy. But to let methane be wasted to pollute the atmosphere when we’re awash in cheap energy is puzzling.
Why did Congress nearly repeal these regulations? The disagreement seems to be over whether states should make the rules, even those on federal lands. It’s similar to the dispute about water.
But what a bizarre flag to battle under, the right to allow waste and pollution. Whatever were Rep. Mike Coffman, Sen. Cory Gardner and Colorado’s other Republicans in Congress thinking?
Thanks goodness for the three senators who crossed the aisle: John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine.