December 18, 2019

Time to Wake Up: Methane and the Captured EPA

As-prepared for delivery.

We’re rapidly running out of time to protect our future, and that of our children and grandchildren, from worsening climate upheaval.  America ought to be taking every measure available to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, from legislative action, to legal action, to diplomatic action, to regulatory action.  But we’re not, because of corruption.

Regulatory action means enforcing the laws on the books.  We have a Clean Air Act that requires the Environmental Protection Agency to stop dangerous pollutants from fouling our air.  The EPA has found that greenhouse gases are pollutants under the Clean Air Act, and the Supreme Court has upheld that finding. 

That means we ought to be regulating methane.  Methane is among the most potent greenhouse gases out there.  When released into our atmosphere, it traps about 30 times more heat than its chemical cousin, carbon dioxide.  Oil and gas extraction releases massive methane pollution; in fact, a growing body of science suggests methane pollution from natural gas extraction may completely offset the climate gains of switching from coal to natural gas.  To fulfill its duties under the Clean Air Act, as a matter of law, EPA needs to prevent methane pollution.  It’s the law; it’s not optional.

But the corrupt Trump EPA won’t fight methane pollution.  This corrupt EPA is run by the fossil fuel industry, which couldn’t care less about methane emissions. 

Within weeks of Scott Pruitt taking control of the agency, the corrupted EPA withdrew its request that oil and gas companies even report methane emissions.  The industry knew a true report on methane leakage would damage the case for natural gas as a less dangerous air pollutant.  So they went to a line of attack ripped directly from Big Tobacco’s playbook:  silence the science.  The fewer facts the EPA has, the less action it needs to take under law.   The corrupt Trump EPA deliberately made itself ignorant, and stopped the reporting, so it could avoid its duty.

Step two came in March 2017, with the corrupt Trump effort to roll back existing greenhouse gas regulations, including methane regulations.  Trump’s executive order reads like a fossil fuel lobbyist’s dream, probably because fossil fuel lobbyists wrote it.  He called on the EPA to “review existing regulations that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources and appropriately suspend, revise, or rescind those that unduly burden the development of domestic energy resources.”  Regulations to limit methane pollution were among those Trump’s executive order singled out, saying “as soon as practicable, suspend, revise, or rescind [them].”

Step three was to write a do-nothing replacement.  After lots of dawdling, Trump’s corrupt EPA decided to draft a fake rule – a rule they could point to if challenged in court for doing nothing, but a rule that conveniently would do nothing to limit methane emissions.  The fake rule exempts a huge chunk of oil and gas production from regulation, leaving the industry with an effective blank check to pollute as much methane as it likes.

As I speak, the corrupt Trump EPA is preparing to issue its final rule and the lying and corrupt fossil fuel industry is poised to grab everything it wanted.  The final rule is one that industry stooges could have written themselves; because, well, it looks like they did write it themselves.

They bought that privilege the old fashioned way.  By buying it.

Even before Trump took office, the fossil fuel industry began showering him with money.  Trump raised a record amount for his inauguration – nearly doubling the previous record – and Hess, Chevron, BP, Citgo, ExxonMobil, Consol Energy, Anadarko Petroleum, Cheniere Energy, Continental Resources, Murray Energy, and Valero all made six- or seven-figure donations.  The oil and gas and mining sector was the second largest source of donations, providing more than $10 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. 

That money still flows.  As the 2020 election ramps up, fossil fuel companies are among the largest donors to political spending groups supporting Trump’s reelection.  A pipeline company is the largest single donor to the Trump Victory political action committee: more than $700,000 as of this November.  The oil, gas and mining industries account for more than $5 million to the Trump Victory PAC.  Fossil fuel executives are some of the largest individual donors to the Trump Victory PAC.  One executive alone gave $360,000.

These donations likely represent the tip of a dark iceberg.  Dark-money political organizations accept unlimited donations and provide no disclosure, and Super PACs accept unlimited donations with little disclosure, so we can’t tell exactly how much fossil fuel money is flowing to groups supporting Trump.

But it’s a lot.  When you consider the $650 billion annual subsidy the fossil fuel polluters enjoy, they have every reason to buy control over government from a corrupt Trump administration. 

Money isn’t the only way the fossil fuel industry exerts control.  Oklahoma oil king and Scott Pruitt patron Harold Hamm set up a “Trump Leadership Council” to advise Trump.  The fossil fuel industry was the heart of the Council, with coal giants Alliance Resource Partners and Murray Energy, oil services company Baker Hughes, and natural gas company Devon Energy all active members.  And, of course, there was the National Association of Manufacturers, a trade association recently identified as America’s worst climate obstructer.   With all these obstructors and polluters, the fossil-fuel-friendly Council fed Trump a steady diet of talking points about slashing regulations and achieving “complete American energy independence.”    

These fossil fuel industry talking points became the executive order I mentioned earlier – an order to kill any environmental protection that “unduly burden[s] the development of domestic energy resources.”  Want to know who the winners were from this executive order?   Check the list of attendees at the signing ceremony: fossil fuel executives and fossil fuel industry trade association executives, come to celebrate the freedom to pollute that their influence and money had bought them.

Chevron has recently been identified as one of the companies that has done the most to damage the oceans.  In February of 2017, Chevron wrote to the corrupt Pruitt with a list of deregulatory proposals the company wanted to see implemented at the EPA.  Included was a request to “refocus methane regulations, particularly those that impact existing sources, to encourage voluntary approaches.”  For sure, you can trust one of the world’s worst ocean polluters with “voluntary approaches.” 

The corrupt Trump EPA was stocked with fossil fuel industry cronies ready to implement whatever the industry wanted.  Pruitt rose to political power on a wave of fossil fuel money, and a demonstrated willingness to sell his office by putting fossil fuel industry asks verbatim onto his official letterhead.  Andrew Wheeler, Pruitt’s successor as Administrator, had been a leading lobbyist for the coal industry.  The head of the EPA Air office, Bill Wehrum, rose to prominence by helping build and run an array of trade associations and front groups for the fossil fuel industry.

Beyond Pruitt, Wheeler, and Wehrum, the EPA’s political leadership crawled with fossil fuel flunkies, like the one who left to set up the fossil-fuel dark money group Energy 45 to help promote fossil fuel energy policies; or the lawyer/lobbyist for energy interests Dominion Energy, Koch Industries, and TransCanada overseeing Air Office compliance, of all things.  It’s been an infestation.

It’s easy for the fossil fuel industry to spend big money to corrupt the EPA, because the corruption payback is so big: this dirty methane work alone is estimated to save oil and gas companies hundreds of millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade association for the oil and gas industry, announced a new seven-figure ad campaign called “We’re on it.”  These ads – on the internet, TV, and billboards (they happen to be all over the Washington airports) – are designed to fool the public and policymakers that the oil and gas industry is “on its” methane emissions problem.  Of course, they are lying.  It’s what they do. 

Science tells us that methane emissions are far higher than the estimates of the corrupt Trump EPA.  The investigative journalism group Unearthed found that leading oil companies are emitting unprecedented methane pollution.  In just three producing basins, in just one year, oil companies emitted methane equivalent to the annual emissions of ten coal-fired power plants or eight million cars.  There’s a recent New York Times article you can link to showing infrared imagery of methane billowing out of “super-emitter” fossil fuel facilities.

Yeah, they’re “on it.”  What they’re on is a binge of lying about emissions, corrupting our politics and blocking climate action.  These massive polluting industries have a long track record of climate denial and deceit.  A top climate obstructor, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pays for a phony study claiming the Paris Agreement would cost jobs and economic growth; and Trump pulls us out of Paris.  Oil companies lobby to gut auto fuel efficiency standards; and Pruitt and Wheeler gut the standards.  The natural gas industry objects to rules limiting methane emissions; the corrupt Trump EPA rolls them back.

Will Attorney General Barr look into any of this?  Of course not.  In the corrupt Trump administration, fossil fuel money and influence puts that industry above the law.  They can pollute and corrupt more or less at will. 

We can’t afford this self-dealing from polluters any longer. This is flat out crooked.  It is time to wake up, and it’s time to clean up.

I yield the floor.