Yesterday, New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that he will lead a seven state coalition intending to sue the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for not following through on its obligations under the Clean Air Act. The Attorneys General from New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont take issue with the EPA’s new air rules on hydraulic fracturing in large measure because they do not do enough to curb climate change.
The problem is that natural gas (methane) is extremely bad for climate change. Much more potent than carbon dioxide, the heat trapping capacity of methane gas poses substantial challenges for our warming planet. The latest scientific studies put a stake directly through the heart of the fracking companies’ chief argument: that natural gas is a cleaner burning fossil fuel. The truth is that once you take in to account the life cycle effects, including production, storage, and transmission of methane, the greenhouse gas footprint of fracking exceeds that of coal.
Section 111 of the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to establish emissions standards for new oil and gas sources and to revise those standards every eight years. EPA initially set those standards in 1985 but never revised them until compelled by a 2009 suit. Thus, in August of this year, EPA finalized new air rules that provide some good protections but only indirectly regulate methane. Earthworks and other conservation groups have asked the EPA to issue rules that not only cover methane but also apply to existing sources, not just new ones.
Whether motivated by fears of global warming, a desire to reign in the fossil fuel industry, or to protect public health and safety, this effort deserves praise. When facing off against gas giants polluting the air we breathe, the peoples’ lawyers seek to hold accountable a federal government making baby steps toward meaningful regulation. The oil and gas companies already enjoy broad exemptions from some of our nation’s bedrock environmental laws. Any all of the above energy strategy must also include an all of the above strategy for public health protection.