Sen. Joe Manchin has all but forced Democrats to abandon their best tool to combat climate change in the reconciliation bill. Now he’s reportedly turning his eye towards another proposal to address one of the easiest climate fixes.
Reports surfaced Monday from the New York Times and Reuters that Manchin is now pushing to eliminate or moderate a proposed methane rule in the spending bill. The rule would put a fee on oil and gas producers if their methane emissions exceed a certain standard.
The benefits of this pretty simple rule could actually be very tangible. Modeling released on Monday by Energy Innovation, a climate policy nonprofit, finds that the methane provisions in the Build Back Better Act could prevent 168 million metric tons of industrial carbon dioxide equivalent emissions annually, around the equivalent of taking 36 million gas-powered vehicles off the road. What’s more, the analysis finds, the methane rule could actually increase the U.S. GDP by more than $250 billion and add more than 70,000 jobs by 2050. Sounds cool!
Yet Manchin reportedly is not on board with it, leaving jobs and huge economic benefits on the table. In doing so, he’s giving a huge gift to the oil industry. The American Petroleum Institute, the powerful lobbying arm of the oil industry, has waged an all-out war against the methane rule. The group spearheaded a letter from it and other oil and gas trade groups sent to lawmakers in September. In it, API and the other groups call the proposed methane fee “a punitive pay-for targeted solely on the oil and natural gas industry,” complaining that it would hurt the GDP and eliminate jobs by costing natural gas producers. (Again, that’s not what independent analysis has found.)
Methane regulations are already strict enough, the groups claimed—a complaint the industry routinely trots out to defend polluters. API and its co-signatories said they want the government to play nice and work with oil and gas producers, which really and truly want to help fix this problem if only the government would stop being mean. The American Gas Association led a similar letter that included other gas trade groups.
Both letters featured dozens of signers with various interests in the natural gas, homebuilding, and utility industries (some of which signed both letters). The combined signers of those two letters have given Manchin at least $91,000 in political donations since 2010; API alone has given him $10,000.
Groups like API leading the charge on this specific methane issue gives cover to polluters like Exxon, which has spent at least $1.6 million on ads over the past few months as the bill has been debated, but claims that it’s only concerned about corporate tax hikes, and it really is eager to help fix that whole methane thing.
Perhaps one of the most frustrating things about Manchin turning heel on methane is how easy a win this is. Stopping stray methane emissions is seen as a kind of low-hanging fruit in climate policy with very important near-term benefits. It’s something that we need to get a handle ASAP, but that actually is, in the context of climate solutions, a little more of an easy fix than some of the other problems on the table.
The International Governmental Panel on Climate Change brought up methane for the first time with the release of its five-alarm report in August, concluding methane emissions are skyrocketing due largely to the fossil fuel industry’s leaky pipelines and tendency to rely on flaring. Basically, simply tightening up the production process could do a whole lot of good in cutting down methane emissions. Holding polluters accountable for excess emissions through a tax or other financial punishment would be a pretty simple way to help make that happen.
Reducing methane is such a basic climate strategy, in fact, that it’s become a kind of calling card for fossil fuel producers to signal that they Care About Doing The Right Thing. Last year, more than 60 of the world’s largest oil and gas producers signed an international agreement pledging to track methane emissions more closely. Producers including Shell, Chevron, and BP are part of an initiative based out of the World Bank that aims to eliminate methane flaring, a serious source of emissions, in oil and gas production by 2030. Some oil companies have straight up asked for methane regulations.
The pressure has been mounting this week to finalize the bill before the United Nations climate summit begins next week. For now, the rule is still in there. But Manchin’s desire to kill or weaken it and the razor-thin margin Democrats have in the Senate means it may not be there for long.