Climate & Energy

Seven states, led by New York, sue EPA over methane from oil and gas drilling

One of the benefits of being an elected official in a bright blue state, a state so blue that it casts a pale blue glow over its neighbors, is that you can be pretty aggressively liberal. New York state has a proud tradition of such politicians (as well as some less aggressive ones) — particularly those politicians ensconced as state attorney general.

Ten years ago, the state’s attorney general was a gentleman named Eliot Spitzer. Spitzer basically created the role of the crusading AG, running hard against Wall Street, prostitution (ahem), and pollution. When he wasn’t at the office, he was at home with his wife Silda, because he is a family man. Spitzer was succeeded in his role by Andrew Cuomo, who went after student loans and violations of privacy by police. In January 2011, when Cuomo became governor, the AG position was assumed by Eric Schneiderman — who has taken up the activist tradition with gusto.

citizenactionnySchneiderman, during his campaign for attorney general.

Last May, Schneiderman filed a lawsuit against the federal government seeking to force an environmental review of fracking. That lawsuit was tossed out. So today, Schneiderman is trying a different route. From his website:

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, leading a coalition of seven states, today notified the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of his intent to sue the Agency for violating the Clean Air Act by failing to address methane emissions from the oil and natural gas industry. …

Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas. Pound for pound, it warms the climate about 25 times more than carbon dioxide. EPA has found that the impacts of climate change caused by methane include “increased air and ocean temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns, melting and thawing of global glaciers and ice, increasingly severe weather events — such as hurricanes of greater intensity — and sea level rise.” In 2009, EPA determined that methane and other greenhouse gases endanger the public’s health and welfare.

The EPA’s decision not to directly address the emissions of methane from oil and natural gas operations — including hydrofracking — leaves almost 95% of these emissions uncontrolled.

In August, the EPA finalized new pollution standards for the oil and natural gas industry which limited the amount of volatile organic compounds and other toxics that could be emitted at new extraction sites. But the rule doesn’t explicitly cover methane, though some of the methane that might otherwise escape would be captured or flared under the newly mandated systems. How much methane escapes during extraction — particularly during fracking — is hotly debated.

The EPA is no stranger to taking action in response to a legal dictate; in fact, lawsuits are one of the agency’s primary motivators. 2011’s proposed standard on mercury and air toxics from coal-burning power plants only happened because a court insisted that the EPA develop stricter pollution standards. Lawsuits from states and environmental organizations can reduce the political pressure faced by the EPA — and its supervising administration — when tightening rules that will result in higher costs for industry.

Industry reacted to today’s news as you’d expect, with a representative of the American Petroleum Institute telling the Associated Press that the lawsuit “makes no sense.” Of course, any regulation or imposition on the oil industry makes no sense to the API, because it means having polluters bear the costs of their pollution, and who would want that?

There are two reasons this lawsuit is smart for Schneiderman. The first is that it falls in the sweet spot of two controversial issues: climate change and fracking. New Yorkers are newly sensitive to the former topic, and a battle over the latter has been going on for months. Schneiderman is staking a bold, popular position in both cases.

Which leads to the second reason that this lawsuit is smart. Both of the last two elected governors of New York came directly from the office Schneiderman now holds. There’s basically a footpath worn from the attorney general’s office to the governor’s, with inspirational posters hung along the way saying things like “Bring truth to power!” and “Everyone hates polluters!” As that Associated Press article notes, the seven states that are party to Schneiderman’s suit — New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont — are not big oil and gas producers. But they’re all bathed in that blue light; the attorney general in each can feel confident that taking on greenhouse gas polluters is a politically safe fight to pursue.

For Schneiderman, it’s a push for higher office. But if it results in stronger curbs on methane pollution, who are we to argue?