Republicans join Senate Dems in restoring Obama climate rule

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The Senate on Wednesday voted to reverse the Trump administration's rollback of a crucial Obama-era climate regulation, delivering a bipartisan victory for President Joe Biden’s lofty goals of curbing heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

The 52-42 vote, including three yeas from Republicans, would restore the Obama administration's 2016 restrictions on the potent greenhouse gas methane. Democrats passed it using a legislative maneuver that allows them to get around the Senate's filibuster rules — and had unusually robust support from many oil and gas industry companies, which now support direct methane regulations amid mounting international pressure for cleaner production.

The measure is now expected to move to the House for a vote, which would then send it to Biden's desk upon passage. A vote in that chamber has not yet been scheduled.

With this first climate change vote of the session, the Democrats aim to send a powerful signal that they are serious about delivering on Biden’s aggressive agenda on the issue and can bring tangible victories to a global summit later this year in Glasgow, Scotland. It builds on a bipartisan agreement at the end of 2020 to phase down hydrofluorocarbons, another extremely potent greenhouse gas frequently used in air conditioners and refrigeration.

“I hope that the Biden administration will look at this progress — plus the progress we were able to make on hydrofluorocarbons and hopefully the progress we're going to make on infrastructure — and take those things to Glasgow and say, ‘hey, it's not just talk. We are back. We're leading. We're getting things done and we are ready to join the international community,’” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who led the resolution, told POLITICO ahead of the vote.

The Biden administration voiced support for the move in a statement late Tuesday and noted passage of the resolution would “clear the pathway for EPA to evaluate opportunities to promulgate even stronger standards.” The push also enjoys unusually robust support from the oil and gas sector itself, much of which has come out in favor of direct regulation in recent weeks.

Methane is about 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas for its first 20 years in the atmosphere. A study published this week found swift action to curb methane emissions using existing technologies could slow global warming by up to 30 percent.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), another lead sponsor of the resolution, called it “a repeal of the repeal which leaves the original” Obama-era 2016 EPA methane standards in place. He said it would have an “immediate impact” in abating the effects from greenhouse gas pollution.

“This isn’t an industry versus regulation,” King said. “This is common sense in favor of our ability to save the planet. It really comes down to that.”

Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) joined Democrats in voting for the resolution.

Passage of the methane CRA would be the second significant climate change victory for Congress in recent memory. Lawmakers added a provision in December to an omnibus package phasing down hydrofluorocarbons, another highly potent greenhouse gas, in a move that helps align the U.S. with an international treaty projected to head off global temperature increases by 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Democratic Reps. Diana DeGette (Colo.), Scott Peters (Calif.) and Conor Lamb (Pa.) led a companion resolution H.J. Res. 34 (117) on methane in the House. A spokesperson for Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said he supports the measure and is “closely watching Senate action and will continue working alongside the Biden Administration to advance this important measure.”

It's unclear how the CRA will play with House Republicans, though their support won't be needed for passage. Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), ranking member of the Climate Crisis Committee, told POLITICO he's generally supportive of direct methane regulation but would not support the resolution by itself.

What’s unusual about this resolution is its degree of support among the oil and gas industry. Major companies, including Shell, BP, Devon, Cheniere, Equinor, Total and EQT, as well as the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America have all come out in support for the move. The American Petroleum Institute hasn’t been advocating for or against the measure but said it is “working with the administration in support of the direct regulation of methane for new and existing sources through a new rulemaking process.”

“We support the direct regulation of methane,” Occidental CEO Vicki Hollub said on Tuesday before the Senate Energy Committee. “It is very potent [as a greenhouse gas] and we need regulations in place to ensure we have adequate controls throughout the industry. We support that.”

With such hefty support from the fossil fuel sector, many expected more GOP lawmakers would support the measure. But some Democrats said they were not surprised, noting many of them voted in favor of a 2017 resolution — ultimately unsuccessful — to ax an Obama-era methane rule from the Bureau of Land Management.

“When you get invested in the dogma of a given argument, it's hard to change your position,” Heinrich said. “So, in Washington, if you voted one way one time, it's hard to say, ‘oh you know what, things have changed. I'm not flip flopping. I'm actually incorporating new information.’ Overcoming that is always a challenge.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called the vote on the methane resolution "one of the most important votes" cast in the fight against global warming in the last decade.

“It is one of the first things we have done to fight global warming," he said at a press conference Wednesday. "It will certainly not be the last.”

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