(de)regulation nation

"From the start, Trump surrounded himself with energy advisors who own parts of the oil and gas industry.”

Welcome to (de)regulation nation, the newsletter tracking bad, better, good, and great environmental news in the Trump era.

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bad

The Trump administration is almost done erasing another Obama-era environmental regulation: a 2016 rule designed to curb the methane pollution created by the oil and gas industry.

“The White House is finishing its review of the EPA plan,” reports Bloomberg, “which was described by people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named ahead of a formal announcement that is expected within weeks.”

CO2 pollution is the historical trigger for climate change, and CO2 pollution remains its leading driver today. Yes, methane traps more heat in the “short” term, because it breaks down in about 20 years (into CO2) compared to centuries for CO2. But two centuries of burning coal and oil for energy, joined with burning down tropical forests to plant soybeans and oil palm trees and beef cattle, have produced exponentially more CO2 pollution than methane pollution.

But thanks to the fracking boom, lots of methane is being pulled up from ancient shale formations deep underground. Those operations are so leaky that the Earth is experiencing an atmospheric methane high not seen for millions of years.

“Scientists have measured big increases in the amount of methane” since fracking took off about a decade ago, according to a new study covered in National Geographic. “Cows or wetlands have been fingered as possible sources, but new research points to methane emissions from fossil fuel production—mainly from shale gas operations in the United States and Canada—as the culprit.”

The petroleum industry spent decades funding climate denial and beating back regulations to cap and lower carbon pollution. But today’s shale gas producers (in the US, at any rate) aren’t thrilled that the Trump administration is about to kabosh the Obama-era methane pollution rule. “More than 60 oil and gas companies have made voluntary commitments to pare emissions of methane, the chief ingredient of natural gas,” notes Bloomberg, and “some of them insist federal regulation is still essential for the highly fragmented industry.”

Why? Because their big global selling point for natural gas is that it’s a solution to climate change.

better, from a particular point of view

It’s a fact that burning natural gas for energy creates a lot less CO2 than coal. And while coal is sinking much faster today than most expert observers predicted, it’s still going to take decades to replace coal-fired energy systems with solar, wind, and other renewable sources. (Let’s tackle nuclear another time.)

So as the global ambition to tackle climate change has ramped up over the past decade (at least on paper), so have the arguments from gas producers and their political allies, as well as some climate action advocates, who tout natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to that carbon-neutral future.

That argument, combined with the technologies enabling fracking, and the US government’s promotion of fracking (kicked off under Bush and Obama, and run amok under Trump) has helped catapult US natural gas and oil exports to their biggest scale ever, earning $28 billion for the industry in 2018, according to the US Energy Information Agency.

The body of evidence is only growing, however, that “bridge fuel” benefits are being eaten away by how much methane the oil and gas industry is leaking away. Some producers fear that once the Trump administration signals to the world that US could care less about regulating that pollution, their customers will lose faith in their climate-friendly talking points.

good

A new documentary named “Blowout” tracks how corruption in White House is enriching a small corporate elite, and threatening to lock natural gas into the global energy supply for decades longer than the climate can bear.

The doc also traces how policy moves at the federal and state level trickle down to affect the daily lives of average people in the US and the world, from cancer in small-town Colorado, to asthma in Port Arthur, to poverty in Dhaka.

“Now we can say an estimated 1.4 million people live within 500 feet of active oil and gas wells in the US.” producer Zach Toombs tells me, well within the exposure zone for exposure to methane, benzene, and other toxic emissions. “I think the public health impact is one of the great untold stories of this American fossil fuel resurgence.”

None of that is good news, but “Blowout,” just one product of a multi-story joint reporting project between Newsy, The Texas Tribune, The Associated Press, and The Center for Public Integrity, does a really good job connecting all those dots, and adding new ones to the web.

great

Red-meat eaters (*raises hand*) may not have to choose between steak with a side of guilt and saving the world.

Scientists say methane is driving 20-25 percent of unnatural climate heating. While fracking’s portion of the methane problem is growing, burps and farts from domesticated grazing livestock currently account for around 44 percent of human-caused methane, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, which adds up to 5 percent of global heat-trapping gas pollution.

The “regenerative agriculture” movement says that returning to running cattle on pasture, rather than raising them in feed lots, is the answer to the cows-or-climate question.

“Returning cattle and other ruminants to the land for their entire lives can result in multiple benefits” according to the movement’s advocates, reports NPR, “including restoring soil microbial diversity, and making the land more resilient to flooding and drought. It can boost the nutrient content and flavor of livestock and plants.

“And because grasses trap atmospheric carbon dioxide, the grass-fed system can also help fight climate change. But it does require more land to produce the same amount of meat.”

(Also, of course, the whole argument is moot if you’re razing rainforest to create cattle pasture, which is the dangerous trend underway in Brazil, reports Mongabay.)

Climate-aware meat-eaters have several pros and cons to weigh in deciding how to get their beef fix. NPR’s story lays them out by looking at the science, while HuffPost offers tips on how to suss out “fake grass fed beef.”

Meanwhile, beefless beef seems to be rampaging onto the US market. Animal-free “meat options” are also showing up at Burger King, Subway, Qdoba, and possibly a hospital or baseball park near you, Vox reports, and “consumer demand” is pushing major food distributors Aramark and Sodexo “towards adding plant-based meat to their menus.”


Thanks for reading (de)regulation nation, a production of Brooklyn Radio Telegraph LLC.

This newsletter is written by me, Emily J Gertz. I’m a veteran environmental journalist, and a graduate of the Tow-Knight Center Entrepreneurial Journalism fellowship.

You’ll find links to my other work and more biographical goodness at my website, emilygertz.com

Please send tips and suggestions to: emily@deregnation.com.

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This week’s quote is from the documentary “Blowout.”