A natural gas flare burns at an oil well in North Dakota
A natural gas flare burns at an oil well in North Dakota. ‘Methane is the nuclear weapon of climate change,’ said Angus King, a senator from Maine © Reuters

The US Senate has given an important boost to Joe Biden’s crackdown on emissions, voting to effectively restore a federal clampdown on methane after it was abandoned by the Trump administration, a move that could open a door for even tougher rules.

The resolution would reinstate the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority over emissions of the potent greenhouse gas throughout the oil and gas supply system, forcing companies to monitor and fix leaks.

“This is probably one of the most important votes we will have in this chamber in order to forestall and slow the climate catastrophe,” said Angus King, an independent senator from Maine who typically votes with the Democrats and who co-sponsored the resolution. “Methane is the nuclear weapon of climate change.”

President Biden has pledged to put tackling climate change at the heart of his presidency. Last week he said the US would cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least half from 2005 levels by the end of the decade.

Methane accounted for about 10 per cent of man-made US greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Yet over a 20-year period, methane has 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide, underscoring its importance in the race to avert the worst threats from climate change.

Wednesday’s vote marks the latest effort by Democrats to reverse the deregulatory drive of Donald Trump, who tore up dozens of environmental rules in his term in office, including the Obama-era methane rule last September

Overturning many of the rollbacks would take up to two years under normal procedures. But the Senate was able to fast-track the process of reinstating methane regulation by using the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which allows lawmakers to erase rules introduced in the final six months of a prior administration with a simple majority vote in both chambers of Congress. 

The Senate approved the resolution by 52 votes to 42, with three Republicans crossing the aisle to vote with Democrats. Passage in the House of Representatives and Biden’s approval were a foregone conclusion and could happen as soon as next week, analysts said.

Environmentalists welcomed the vote, which is expected to be the first step in a process to tighten methane regulation, with the White House set to introduce new, stricter rules later this year. 

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Sarah Smith, head of the super pollutants programme at the Clean Air Task Force, an advocacy group, said the vote was a welcome “first step” but more needed to be done to “strengthen rules for new and modified sources of methane emissions and extend those rules to existing sources”.

The oil and gas industry, hurt abroad by a deteriorating image of US fossil fuels, also broadly welcomed the return of methane rules. Many large producers including ExxonMobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell have endorsed federal oversight as they encounter pressure from investors to improve environmental performance.

Smaller producers, less able to afford the costs of monitoring and plugging methane leaks, will for now remain exempt from leak detection and repair burdens. But they are nervous about a further clampdown.

“We’re very worried about everything that’s coming down the pike at us,” said Dick Schremmer, chair of the National Stripper Wells Association, which represents smaller oil and gas companies. “We’re just slightly dodging the bullet right now, but we know that bullseye is on our back.”

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The CRA has been used 17 times since its introduction in 1996, all but one of them during a Republican blitz to unravel former president Barack Obama’s regulatory agenda in the early days of the Trump administration.

A new Congress has a narrow 60-day window to make use of the mechanism. Wednesday’s vote is likely to be the only time the current Congress will do so on environmental matters. 

“The period for introducing resolutions of disapproval has now passed, so this is probably going to be the only one that we will see disapproved,” said Richard Revesz, director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law. “The main reason is that CRA resolutions of disapproval can take up to 10 hours of Senate debate time. And early in an administration, Senate debate time is a scarce resource.”

Methane’s role in fuelling climate change has come into sharper focus in recent years. A study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters this week found that quick action to scrub out about half the world’s methane emissions by 2030, which it says can be done with already available measures, could dramatically slow the pace of climate change.

Avoiding those emissions would slow the rate of warming by more than 25 per cent over the coming decades and could reduce total warming by 0.5C by 2100, a significant share of the Paris Agreement’s 2C target.

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