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Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and there's more of it in the atmosphere than there used to be. Some methane comes from farms. Some can escape from leaky oil and gas operations. It's the main component of natural gas. The Obama administration wants to reduce methane emissions. As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, some people say the government is overreaching.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Environmental scientist Rob Jackson at Stanford University tracks methane deep underground in drinking water, even in city sewers. He says what he sees lately is alarming.
ROB JACKSON: Methane concentrations in the atmosphere are surging faster than any time in the last 20 years. We understand some of the reason for that but not all of the reason.
JOYCE: Scientists have been pointing the finger at agriculture, especially in Asia and Africa. Feeding more people means more flooded rice fields, more livestock, more manure. But Jackson notes that there are other sources as well.
JACKSON: We also see evidence for some increase from the fossil fuel sector.
JOYCE: Drilling and transporting natural gas comes with occasional leaks. Recent research shows these leaks are more widespread than previously thought. Jackson and other scientists say the uptick in methane poses an increasing threat to the climate. The Obama administration has decided to focus on the oil and gas part of that problem. The Environmental Protection Agency has written regulations to make companies plug methane leaks. The oil and gas industry says, no thanks.
Jack Gerard, who's head of the American Petroleum Institute, recently told reporters he wants the incoming Trump administration to dump the regulations.
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JACK GERARD: Methane is a top priority, and we'll be pursuing that aggressively.
JOYCE: Some states and oil and gas companies have already sued to stop the regulations which are not in effect yet. Steve Leifer is an environmental lawyer at Baker Botts, a firm that represents oil and gas companies.
STEVE LEIFER: I think everybody understands that there needs to be methane regulation, and it's really a question of degree. I know the industry is very concerned. They're taking it very, very seriously.
JOYCE: And they're arguing the biggest culprit is agriculture, along with natural sources like wetlands. That may be true, but lawyer Mark Brownstein with the Environmental Defense Fund says that's a red herring.
MARK BROWNSTEIN: I think the debate over what's caused the near-term rise has served to obscure the fact that emissions are already too high.
JOYCE: Brownstein says capturing leaked methane from oil and gas operations is easier than changing agricultural practices. In fact, he says it makes economic sense. Leaked methane is money lost. The Defense Fund, along with university researchers and natural gas companies, has studied how much gas is leaking.
BROWNSTEIN: Let's keep in mind what's at stake here. We're wasting enough natural gas every year to serve the needs of 7 million homes.
JOYCE: So far, oil and gas interests are not swayed. They prefer voluntary efforts to limit leaks. The incoming administration may agree. Donald Trump says EPA regulations are a drain on business. So does his pick to run the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. Lawyer Steve Leifer says it's likely that all this will end up in court with lots of other pending environmental regulations.
LEIFER: Well, (laughter) there is no major rule that isn't going to go to court. You just can't find one.
JOYCE: Every change of administration in Washington, he notes, means more business for lawyers. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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