Senate puts public health above party brand in vote to keep methane-gas rule


Obscured amid the dizzying dust-up of last week’s firing of FBI Director James Comey came one of the most consequential and stunning defeats of the four-month presidency of Donald J. Trump.

In a mostly party-line vote, the U.S. Senate last Wednesday rejected a Trump initiative to scrub a responsible rule requiring cuts in dangerous methane-gas emissions at gas and oil drilling sites on public lands. The rule was implemented in 2016 by Trump’s archenemy, former President Barack Obama.

That rejection represents the one and only loss for the president among 13 Congressional Review Act resolutions that he has steamrolled through Congress and into law so far this year. Many of them have taken straight aim at environmental safeguards, including those tied to coal pollution, land management and financial disclosures for drillers.

The resolution to deep-six the methane rule easily won approval in the House in February in typical partisan fashion. The Mahoning Valley’s delegation predictably split on the issue, with U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson of Marietta, R-6th, supporting cancellation of the protections and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th, opposing the move.

In the Senate, thanks to the independent thinking of three courageous Republican senators – Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina – the commonsensical public health standards will remain in place.

DISAPPOINTED IN PORTMAN

We were, however, disappointed that Ohio’s junior U.S. Sen. Rob Portman did not join Collins, Graham and McCain in dissent. Portman was on the fence until two days before the vote when he announced his support after receiving an answer to a letter he sent to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.

“I believe that the Interior Department should do more to prevent methane venting and flaring on federal lands,” Portman said when announcing his decision. “The secretary of the Interior has made clear in a letter to me that the department is committed to acting on this important issue going forward, and he has outlined specific actions it would take to do that,” he added.

Unfortunately, however, as we pointed out earlier this month in an editorial opposing the rule rollback, the resolution’s draconian format as a congressional review act would have prevented the Bureau of Land Management from ever again proposing similar regulations.

The methane-waste prevention rule aims to limit venting, flaring and leaking of methane‚ä – ‚äthe main component in natural gas‚ä – from oil and gas operations on public and tribal lands. Had the rule been repealed, methane that traps 86 times more heat than carbon dioxide, would flow more freely – as would its documented health hazards to the masses.

Support for the rule’s preservation was broad-based. Even the conservative Republican-leaning Citizens For Responsible Energy Solutions released new polling that showed strong support for the current standards that crossed political party lines.

“This survey shows what we at CRES have seen time and time again, that advancing clean-energy solutions is smart policy and smart politics. While there are clear political divisions in our country, large majorities of likely voters continue to support federal action to reduce emissions that cause climate change, make domestic energy sources like natural gas cleaner and more efficient, and update and simplify regulations instead of cutting them,” said CRES Managing Director Heather Reams.

But now that the Congress has successfully blocked this misguided initiative, clean-energy advocates cannot rest on their laurels. Trump’s Interior Department is likely to try to repeal the rule itself through internal administrative procedures. Efforts to undo similar methane regulations that cover drilling on private lands also is being targeted by the new administration. EPA Director Scott Pruitt has delayed implementation of those regulations while his agency assesses their impact on businesses.

Those and other threats mean Congress and the American people must remain vigilant. They also should inspire more senators and representatives to follow the lead of Collins, Graham and McCain in exercising independent and strong-willed thinking. That should only require the will to put U.S. citizens’ best interests above blind allegiance to party brand.

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