Pennsylvania resident Frank Finan filmed condensate tank methane emissions with his infrared FLIR GasFindIR camera. With the FLIR GasFindIR, hydrocarbon emissions, including methane, can be seen with the naked eye as black smoke or steam. Emissions like this are migrating into Baltimore’s air. 

Federal lawmakers have blocked an attempt by President Donald Trump to cancel Obama-era methane rules — at least on federal lands. Though Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency has quietly cancelled Obama’s broader methane emissions regulation enacted in 2015, thanks to the move by the Senate, oil and gas must still capture and reduce fugitive methane emissions on fed lands. This unlikely block is actually a big deal for citizens who live near fracking sites, the tax coffers of certain states and all citizens who live on Planet Earth.

President Trump and his administration have taken the regulatory chainsaw known as the Congressional Rule Act to most Obama-era environmental rules. The act gives new administrations 60 days to overturn previous rules enacted by outgoing administrations.

Three GOP senators — John McCain of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, — joined Democrats this week to keep on the legal books an oil and gas methane reduction rule. The rule forces oil and gas operators to capture — and pay royalties — for the methane gas spewed by oil and gas wells on leased federal lands.

It’s important to note that until Obama’s tenure, oil and gas could legally vent, flare and silently leak stray gases from drilling operations into the air. Only recently have Colorado and North Dakota tackled regulating fracking’s horrendous air pollution. For the last 158 years since the first U.S. oil well was drilled, the oil and gas industry has knowingly emitted, flared, vented and leaked massive amounts of unhealthy and climate-changing methane into our atmosphere — all without paying Uncle Sam royalties. Trump would like to make sure this continues.

Why care about methane?

Methane (CH4) levels are 1,850 ppb today from pre-industrial revolution levels of ~500 ppb. Credit: NOAA.

Major Climate Change Greenhouse Gas: Methane is an odorless and clear gas that mostly composes the natural gas that heats your home and fuels power plants. It’s also a greenhouse gas that’s way more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2). Like CO2, global methane levels are sky-high because humans have been burning and drilling fossil fuels since 1703. But methane is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its first twenty years in the air. Methane is also emitted from cows, agriculture and the Arctic’s now-thawing frozen tundra.

Disgusting and toxic air pollution: As we’ve reported, for the 15 million-plus Americans who live near fracking wells, air pollution is rampant. When the gases release, many other toxic and unhealthy compounds are included in the ominously titled category of “fugitive gas emissions.” Methane joins CO2, smog-forming nitrogen oxide, cancer-causing BTEX volatile organic compounds (benzene, toluene, ethylene and xylene), radioactive isotopes, formaldehyde and hydrogen sulfide. There’s more, too, but do I need to keep going?

Though scientific studies were far behind fracking’s boom that began in 2004, it’s clear humans were not intended to breathe these chemicals, as many who live close to fracking wells suffer negative health consequences. The short list of fracking air pollution health issues includes cancer, asthma, birth defects, skin ailments, premature births and death.

Time is running out: Until recently, scientists made predictions about climate change in terms of end-of-century timetables. The year 2099 is far, far, far away.

But not anymore. Scientists now report we have 15 years before our planet’s climate shifts to unknown territory. A massive ice shelf is expected to break off in days or weeks.

Dialing up your climate change education is key. Taking control of your individual carbon pollution is worthwhile. And supporting businesses and nonprofits that invest in renewable energy will help rebuke the federal government’s dangerous move to outdated business-as-usual pollution.

The oil and gas industries have made strides in capturing intentional flared methane from newly drilled gas wells, reaching an overall eight percent reduction. North Dakota is also piping more gas, rather than flaring the gas found when drilling for oil. Credit: Frank Finan.

Laurel Peltier writes the environment GreenLaurel column every Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl.