(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

Rolling back emissions rules for oil and gas companies is dangerous for the environment and your health.

The Trump administration will soon roll back rules limiting the release of methane gases, a major contributor to climate change and overall air quality, according to reports by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is expected to sign the rollback of the 2016 methane emissions rule in Pittsburgh in a Thursday event the agency touted as an announcement of the Trump administration’s efforts to “strengthen and promote American energy.”

Pittsburgh is home to the headquarters of many companies exploring the Marcellus Shale, the booming natural gas reservoir that vaulted Pennsylvania to the nation’s No. 2 gas state, behind Texas.

The move would undo Obama-era EPA rules that encouraged oil and gas companies to reduce the methane coming from their sites, including storage locations, pipelines, and wells. 

The rules also aimed to prevent oil and gas companies from being “super emitters” of methane gases. Leaks from natural gas wells are responsible for a major portion of total emissions, according to a study by Stanford. These “super emitters” can account for up to 90% of U.S. methane emissions. 

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Methane traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, making it a significant variable contributing to the climate crisis. The gas makes up about 10% of U.S. greenhouse emissions. While it doesn’t last as long as carbon dioxide does in the air, it is at least 25 times more likely to cause warming compared to a greenhouse gas. 

Methane is also dangerous to human health. It can seep into groundwater and harm communities that drink or use water from wells, and cause people to lose consciousness due to asphyxia if too much is inhaled. It can also increase the risk of damaging explosions, like the Deepwater Horizon explosion 10 years ago. And its effects on the ozone can cause a long list of health problems, like hypertension, asthma, and bronchitis. 

The methane-tracking technology encouraged by the Obama administration helped companies regularly check for leaks. Before that, oil and gas companies let the gas pollute the air for more than a century, according to a Reuters report. The EPA found more than 280 kilotons of methane came from millions of abandoned wells in 2018. And those leaks could grow in number due to bankruptcies caused by lower demand in oil and gas during the pandemic.

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The oil and gas industry is responsible for nearly 30% of the nation’s methane emissions, according to the EPA.

Meanwhile, as the general election draws closer, the natural gas industry is already playing a central role in TV campaign ads in the state. In 2016, Trump eked out a win in Pennsylvania—the first Republican presidential candidate to capture it since 1988—by piling up support with the state’s rural areas and working-class whites.

Since then, Trump has eagerly promoted the state’s gas industry, underscoring his focus on shoring up his base as his appointees have moved to relax pollution standards, expand extraction on federal lands, boost the export of liquefied natural gas and restrict the ability of states to block pipelines.

A pro-Trump super PAC, America First Action, is also running TV ads in Pennsylvania accusing the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, of wanting to ban “fracking,” the process that along with horizontal drilling has unlocked a torrent of natural gas across the United States in the past decade.

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Biden’s campaign counters that that is flatly untrue. Biden would ban new gas-drilling permits on public lands, pointing out that about 90% of fracking is done on private land currently.

A new CBS/YouGov poll of Pennsylvanians also shows that a slight majority (52%) of respondents now oppose fracking.

The Pennsylvania Democratic Party issued a statement prior to EPA Administrator Wheeler’s arrival: “Wheeler’s visit is nothing more than Trump’s latest attempt to distract from his ongoing coronavirus failures and reckless moves to gut Social Security and Medicare,” said spokesperson Andres Anzola. “Families in southwestern Pennsylvania need Trump and his allies to start doing their jobs—not rushing to the Commonwealth for politically motivated photo-ops.” 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

This story has been updated to include polling data on where Pennsylvanians now stand on fracking.