The Climate Rollback That’s Too Much Even for Big Oil

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Carbon dioxide is the best-known greenhouse gas, but methane may be more dangerous: One pound can capture up to 84 times as much heat as a pound of carbon dioxide. A byproduct of fossil fuel production as well as agriculture, it’s to blame for about a quarter of all manmade global warming.

So when the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans Thursday to roll back regulations curbing methane emissions, environmental groups were quick to object. More surprisingly, some of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies complained as well. “[We] have made clear our support of 2016 law,” said the president of Shell Oil Co. BP Plc and Exxon Mobil Corp. agreed.

That’s partly because the rules introduced under President Barack Obama were hardly onerous. They required oil and gas companies to take action to prevent methane leaks from new wells, pipelines and storage tanks. Methane, unlike carbon dioxide, is a fuel, so companies have reason to do this anyway. And existing wells, which outnumber new ones, would have plenty of time to adapt: The EPA would have taken years to develop new standards for them.

If President Donald Trump’s administration has its way, those wells won’t need to be checked for leaks. The EPA’s own figures show the proposal would cause about 370,000 tons of additional methane emissions between now and 2025 — the equivalent of burning more than 4 million tons of coal. It would save oil and gas companies maybe $20 million a year — a drop in the bucket for a $100 billion-plus industry.

No wonder oil majors aren’t impressed. To be sure, the industry isn’t united in opposition — but the heavyweights understand the costs of bad publicity are more than a few million dollars each year. A backlash is already brewing: One group representing some 140 institutional investors, accounting for a combined $5.5 trillion of assets, has urged energy companies to ignore the proposed rule. 

Businesses can’t ignore public opinion as blithely as the Trump administration apparently believes it can. Voters overwhelmingly agree that global warming is happening, is dangerous, and requires government action to stop it. Just last month, major automakers sided with environmentalists against a Trump administration push to relax emissions standards. As consumers increasingly feel the effects of global warming, the pressure will grow. Smart businesses see the writing on the wall.

The public has 60 days to comment on the proposal. Businesspeople, consumers, scientists and environmentalists — all of whom wish to live and prosper on the same warming planet — should make their voices heard.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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