After intense public anger, Republicans waver over slashing Obama-era action on methane gas

As Republican lawmakers consider how closely to align with the climate skepticism and fossil fuel fervor radiating from the White House, a nascent clean air initiative that energy firms want scrapped is fast testing their comfort zone.

Weighing on them is 41 billion cubic feet of methane, a greenhouse gas leaking from many of the nearly 100,000 oil and gas wells on federally owned land. Methane is among the most potent accelerators of global warming, 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.

Since the House swiftly voted last month to lift a requirement that escaping gas be trapped and converted to electricity, the backlash has been intense.

Anger is most pronounced in the West, where tens of thousands of residents near drilling operations risk exposure to the toxic compounds that leak in tandem with the methane. Local governments are also desperate for the royalty money they would be entitled to if that gas were turned to energy.

“The thought of a bunch of disconnected lawmakers who don’t live next to leaking gas wells deciding to vote to take this protection away from us just leaves me speechless,” said New Mexico cattleman Don Schreiber, whose Devil’s Spring Ranch in Rio Arriba County is surrounded by 122 natural gas wells.

Supervisors in adjacent La Plata County, Colo., passed a resolution calling on Congress to abandon the rollback. More than 80% of the people in Western states including Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming support the Obama-era mandate, according to a Colorado College poll taken in December.

The political tension has left many Republican senators wavering, as they struggle with the potential fallout of going after a signature Obama administration climate change policy that — like many others — has a constituency that extends far beyond climate hawks.

They face competing pressure from the Trump administration, as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt rebukes climate science and steps away from his own agency’s far-reaching methane blueprint, intended to stem leaks that in some cases are so large they can be spotted from outer space.

Oil and gas companies have recruited powerful allies in the fight, including in California’s Central Valley, home to some of the highest concentrations of methane anywhere.

“As federal lands become less cost-effective to produce energy on, this unnecessary rule adds to that burden and could wipe out marginal wells run by family-owned businesses who can’t pack up and move their operations,” warned a report posted by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.

He also forecasts financial peril for local governments if the Obama-era rule is not immediately rolled back.

Such pressure has yet to sway many GOP colleagues tangled in the messy politics of methane, such as Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner. His state, like McCarthy’s, is among several that have passed their own laws requiring oil and gas companies to pursue aggressive measures to contain the methane. Many of Gardner’s constituents, including energy firms subject to the new state law, are demanding he help preserve the federal restraints so operators in adjacent states with no local laws would have to abide by the same rules.

They point to large amounts of air pollution drifting from Utah and New Mexico, exacerbating air problems in Colorado. Local Colorado firms resent that their nearby competitors can ignore leaks they can’t. The state’s burgeoning clean-energy industry, with its growing bipartisan political might, is applying its own pressure.

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