Methane: A Dangerous Problem, An Easy Solution
Methane: A Dangerous Problem, An Easy Solution
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, trapping 86 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. In fact, nearly 20% of the planet’s warming can be attributed to methane. And, because it’s often paired with other toxic pollutants such as benzene, formaldehyde, and ethylbenzene, the release of methane into the air can cause debilitating health problems for the millions of people who live near oil and gas operations. Each year, fossil fuel companies leak or deliberately vent 13 million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere during oil and gas operations, which, according to a new study, is 60% more than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated. Oil, gas and coal production are the largest industrial sources of methane emissions.
Proven, low-cost solutions exist to cut this dangerous and wasteful pollution. In 2016, the Obama administration enacted the first nationwide requirements for the oil and gas industry to reduce methane emissions from its operations. These standards came after years of legal advocacy by Earthjustice. They were projected to reduce the equivalent of 11 million metric tons of carbon pollution by 2025 and save Americans a net of $170 million in costs related to methane pollution.
But the Trump administration did everything it could to allow fossil fuel companies to continue releasing harmful methane emissions into our air. The Trump EPA gutted methane pollution standards in 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, further jeopardizing public health. The Trump administration also tried to gut the Bureau of Land Management’s Waste Prevention Rule, which protects the public from wasteful venting, flaring, and leaking of gas from drilling operations on federal and tribal lands. Earthjustice represented tribal and conservation citizen groups in a lawsuit against the rollback — and won.
On his first day in office, President Biden signed an executive order that directs agencies to consider revising methane pollution standards for the oil and gas industry. Congressional leaders are also working to undo Trump’s rollbacks and restore methane protections. The Senate passed a Congressional Review Act resolution in April to effectively reinstate the Obama-era methane standards. The resolution has also been introduced in the House.
Ahead of the UN climate summit this fall, the Biden administration can demonstrate it’s serious about tackling the climate crisis and protecting public health by setting a strong U.S. target to reduce methane pollution.
Earthjustice will continue to partner with communities on the frontlines of methane pollution, who view these government safeguards as vital tools in their fight for the very air they breathe. Below are the stories of communities across the country who are fighting alongside Earthjustice to protect themselves against oil and gas industry pollution.
Bob Arrington is a native born Coloradoan and, although retired, keeps his professional engineer status active. There was a time, he remembers, when the oil and gas industry coexisted more peacefully with Coloradoans. But in the fracking rush of recent years, “things became a development frenzy.”
One of his first jobs out of the University of Colorado was designing air pollution control equipment for industrial, chemical and power plants. Now living in Battlement Mesa, he’s putting his years of expertise to use—working to protect himself and his community from methane and other air pollution from nearby oil and gas operations.
“We are surrounded in all directions by Bureau of Land Management land and the oil and gas activities on those lands have direct consequences on our air quality,” said Bob. “They’re saying they can’t, but it absolutely can be done better and with cost recoveries.”
Two of the most important things to Barnesville, Ohio resident Terri Schumacher are her faith and her grandchildren, including her two-year-old granddaughter who lives with her. But keeping up with her granddaughter has gotten more difficult in recent years. She uses an inhaler and has had increased difficulty breathing ever since the oil and gas industry began operating nearby, prompting her to participate in a Yale University study monitoring her indoor and outdoor air quality.
“I was sitting outside on my front porch the other night with my daughter,” she said last summer. “It was so bad, I couldn’t get a breath.”
She doesn’t reject the oil and gas industry. But she does think they need to be better neighbors: “You can’t turn your head when somebody else is being hurt by decisions that you make. You are accountable for that. I firmly believe that. Maybe not in this life—but one day we have to answer. All we are asking for is oversight, for protection against the hazards and the problems. We will support the industry. Just please make it safe.”
Lois Bower-Bjornson is the mother of three boys and one girl and lives in Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania, about 40 minutes south of Pittsburgh. Lois owns two small businesses and lives in the Marcellus shale field where natural gas development is rampant. Lois’s home is surrounded by 30 well pads, three compressor stations, and multiple pipelines.
She has been working to protect her children from air pollution from gas development for the past four years. Lois has provided testimony at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hearings and traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with elected officials, and to Harrisburg to meet with Governor Wolf’s staff.
“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts,” Lois told reporters during a recent trip to Washington, D.C. “We may not always get the results that we want, however we will be heard and not ignored any longer.”
Navajo Community leader Daniel Tso has watched as oil and gas operations have encroached more and more on his community’s tribal lands. He has seen the flames at drilling sites as methane is burned off in wasteful flares, smelled the chemical odors filling the air, felt the residue of grease and smoke from the flares on his skin. And he is standing up to protect his community by supporting protections like a rule the Bureau of Land Management has adopted to reduce air pollution from oil and gas operations on federal and tribal lands.
“We are seeing more of our older folks having to carry around an oxygen tank,” Tso says. “The leases have been signed, the approval has been given, but the one thing—how do we mitigate the adverse impacts, the health and safety of the people?”
The mother of two daughters, one with epilepsy and a second on the autism spectrum, Kristi Mogen works hard to minimize her family’s exposure to chemicals. She grew up on a farm in South Dakota and now lives in Douglas, Wyoming, where her family’s grass-fed cattle herd and organic garden supply the family with plenty of fresh, healthy food, free of dangerous chemicals that could worsen her daughters’ conditions. But on April 24, 2012, a nearby well that Chesapeake was drilling suffered a blowout, sending a plume of vaporized “drilling mud” chemicals into the air.
The family evacuated, covering themselves in protective clothing, hats, gloves, sunglasses and bandanas before driving away with the windows closed. Kristi’s years of hard work to protect her daughters from chemical exposure was undone in an instant.
That afternoon, the family began getting nosebleeds. Kristi’s younger daughter suffered 29 straight days of nosebleeds, sometimes several times a day. Her husband’s blood tests revealed that he no longer had detectable levels of testosterone. Since the blowout, Chesapeake has continued to vent and flare pollution into the air. Despite a community uproar, state regulators with the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission have fined Chesapeake a mere $1,000. Prior to her experience with Chesapeake and the WOGCC, Kristi thought that regulation of the industry should be left to the states. She doesn’t believe that anymore. That is why she is took her story to lawmakers and policymakers in Washington, D.C.
“We need some federal regulations, regulations with teeth,” Kristi says. What spurs her to fight? “It’s my farm girl grit, I guess. This is our way of life and they really messed it up. And I’m a mom. I take care of my family. That’s my job.”
Our bodies should not be the dumping ground for dirty industries. The technology to dramatically reduce harmful methane pollution is available today, and major polluters should be required to use it. Earthjustice has worked for decades to clean up the oil and gas industry and hold it accountable to the highest standards.
“It's past time for oil and gas companies to embrace best practices that could make the difference between catastrophic climate change and a secure future on a livable planet,” says Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen.