by Kelli Reeder and Ryan Yonk, June 28, 2016
Last month, the Obama administration introduced additional regulations on methane emissions in the oil and natural gas industry. The new rules seek to both cut methane emissions and cement Obama’s environmentalist legacy. But because of exemptions for government favorites, the new laws will likely fall short of any meaningful improvements in the environment.
Despite their steadily decreasing methane emissions, industries like oil and natural gas have been targets for regulation. The EPA claims that oil and natural gas are the greatest contributor of methane emissions, but data also provided by the EPA, cited in the Federal Register, show this is not true. Methane emissions from livestock farming are significantly higher than any other industry, but there are no regulations requiring farmers to reduce their emissions. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
A 2016 appropriations bill showcases how powerful interest groups can frustrate government’s efforts to protect the environment. The bill included a change under the Clean Air Act that specifically prohibits the EPA from measuring (let alone regulating) methane emissions from livestock, meaning the politically influential farm industry gets a free pass from following new, or any, emissions standards for methane.
Farmers are exempted for the same reasons the farm bill is consistently almost $1 trillion: the lobbying power of special interest groups and the electoral importance of swing states like Ohio and Iowa. These states’ economies are rooted in the farming industry, and granting special privileges is a sure way for politicians to curry favor.
In the case of methane emissions, the government is granting privileges to livestock farmers, but doubling down on other industries like oil and gas. Because the oil and natural gas industry has been labeled the top source of methane emissions in the United States by the EPA, it’s easier for politicians to use oil and gas companies as scapegoats and not address increasing methane emissions from livestock production.
Contrary to the EPA’s claim, statistics from an EPA report show oil and natural gas production accounted for 23 percent of methane emissions in 2013 compared to about 36 percent from livestock production. But the 36 percent is arbitrarily broken into two categories, enteric fermentation, which is methane produced by the digestive systems of livestock, and manure management from livestock. Manure management has increased by 64 percent since 1990. When considered together this makes livestock farming the largest source of methane emissions in the United States, but those emissions are no longer being tracked by the EPA.
Not only are methane emissions from farming being explicitly ignored, they are increasing, even though cattle production is declining. In contrast, natural gas production has been increasing, but emissions from the industry have decreased. So even though the government’s selective data reporting makes their actions seem effective, a more detailed examination of the data reveals that obvious targets, like oil and gas, are actually improving while farmers receive an exception.
Studies have shown that methane emissions have declined as natural gas production has risen. Much of this is due to technological innovation and voluntary actions in excess of government requirements. Industry partnerships and programs have eliminated more than 1.2 trillion cubic feet of methane emissions since the 1990s. This progress has been both voluntary and market-driven, not merely a response to government mandates.
This story tells us that, for politicians, appearing green is far more valuable than actually being green, and doing so by singling out bogeymen like the oil and gas industry while ignoring larger polluters who are more politically difficult to regulate. When government ignores one industry’s pollution while targeting another’s, the environment is not the benefactor — cronyism is.
About the Author
Ryan Yonk is an assistant research professor at Utah State University. Kelli Reeder is a communications associate at Strata, a research center in Logan, Utah.
At Strata, we understand the power of ideas and encourage individual development through writing and creative expression. The ideas, stories, and opinions expressed in this op-ed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Strata.