The Biden administration’s crackdown on methane leaks from oil wells relies in part on a powerful new policy tool that could strengthen its legal authority to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the economy, including from cars. , power plants, factories and oil refineries.

The new limits on methane, announced Saturday by the Environmental Protection Agency during the COP28 climate talks in Dubai, point to a single source of pollution warming the climate. Methane, spewed from oil and gas drilling sites, is 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide when it comes to warming the atmosphere in the short term.

But within the language of the methane rule, EPA economists have included a controversial calculation that would give the government legal authority to aggressively limit climate-warming pollution from nearly every smokestack and tailpipe in the country.

The figure, known as the “social cost of carbon,” has been used since the Obama administration to calculate the damage to the economy caused by a ton of carbon dioxide pollution. The metric is used to weigh the economic benefits and costs of regulations that apply to polluting industries, such as transportation and energy.

As scientists have increasingly been able to link planetary warming to wildfires, floods, droughts, storms and heat waves, estimates of the social cost of carbon have become more sophisticated.

The higher the number, the greater the government’s justification for forcing polluters to reduce emissions that are dangerously warming the planet. During the Obama administration, White House economists estimated the social cost of carbon at $42 a ton. The Trump administration reduced it to less than $5 a ton. Under President Biden, the cost returned to Obama levels, adjusted for inflation and was set at $51.

The new estimate of the social cost of carbon, making its debut in legally binding federal regulation, is nearly four times that amount: $190 a ton.

EPA officials say they intend to use that figure in all of the agency’s climate regulations in the future.

“This is a huge victory, it’s great. “It’s impressive!” said Michael Greenstone, the Obama administration economist who first came up with the idea of ​​using the social cost of carbon to create an economic justification for climate policy.

“This brings the US government to the frontier of climate science and economics, after we had fallen behind,” said Greenstone, who now directs the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. “And it means that stricter climate regulations will be justified. “That will mean that polluting power plants and cars will not be able to emit as much.”

The new figure will be put into practice immediately: The EPA plans to release final regulations this spring to curb carbon dioxide from cars, trucks and power plants. If you connect the new figure to the agency’s proposal to reduce tailpipe emissions by increasing sales of electric vehicles or its proposal to eliminate pollution from power plants, the economic benefits of each rule could increase to more than 1 trillion dollars, much more than estimated. cost to affected industries. It would be similar for new rules to reduce pollution from steel and cement plants, factories and oil refineries, which Biden is planning if he wins reelection to a second term.

“With a number this high, many more actions to fight climate change will pass the cost-benefit test,” said Michael B. Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

That’s a crucial point in the legal fight over regulations: Historically, when the government can show that the economic benefit of a regulation is greater than its cost, courts are likely to uphold those rules in the face of legal challenges.

“This figure means the government has a weapon it can use to justify anything it wants to do.” Elizabeth MurrillLouisiana’s Republican attorney general said in an interview.

Murrill is part of a group of Republican state attorneys general who are preparing to fight climate regulations coming from the Biden administration, which they see as a government assault on the industry.

A federal judge had dismissed a challenge to the Biden administration’s decision to set the cost of carbon pollution at $51 a ton. Murrill said the new figure should be easier to attack in court because it would have much greater economic consequences.

“Now we have a concrete application of the numbers and now we can go back and challenge everything again,” he said.

EPA officials said they are prepared for any legal challenges. They spent more than two years working on a 182-page analysis, documenting the scientific and economic methods they used to consider the damage caused by climate change to livelihoods, property values ​​and raw material costs. .

“It’s a huge issue and it reflects the impacts of climate change that people experience in their daily lives,” Vicki Arroyo, EPA associate administrator for policy, said in an interview.

“If you look at the recent National Climate Assessment, these numbers reflect what the scientific community has said is the cost to society of climate change,” Ms. Arroyo said, pointing to the publication last month of a comprehensive report that documents the impact of climate change. on American lives, from increased deaths during extreme heat in the Southwest, earlier and longer pollen seasons in Texas, the northward migration of crop pests in the Corn Belt, and more hail storms. harmful in Wyoming and Nebraska.

The assessment includes a chapter on economics, reflecting an expanding field of research into the financial costs of a warming planet and how they affect households, businesses and markets.

Researchers from the National Academies of Sciences concluded in 2017 that the Obama-era estimate that every ton of carbon pollution causes $42 of damage to the economy was outdated, and recommended that the government revise the figure. A study last year in the journal Nature concluded that the price should be $185 per ton.

Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, could try to lower the cost of the carbon metric if he wins the White House, as he did when he lowered the Obama-era figure.

But Mandy Gunasekara, who served as EPA chief of staff during the Trump administration, said that given the research and analysis behind the new figure, it could be difficult for a new administration to easily reduce it.

“There is a high degree of legal certainty,” given the inclusion of the figure in the new methane regulation, said Gunasekara, who is now a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization that is writing the plan for the next Republican. . the administration’s energy and climate agenda.

Still, he said, a future Republican administration is likely to try.

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