Good news, these days, is hard to find. So when a vote to overturn a relatively obscure rule governing oil and gas drilling on public lands failed, green groups were understandably jubilant. Fifty-one senators decided to put the best interests of taxpayers and the environment first, and narrowly saved a rule to limit methane emissions.
This means that instead of wasting hundreds of millions of dollars worth of natural gas (methane is its primary component), companies will capture and sell it. Because companies drilling on public land pay royalties on the oil and gas sold, this means the public will receive tens of millions of dollars in revenue from gas that’s currently burned or left to leak out and pollute the atmosphere. This means more money in our coffers and less greenhouse gas in our atmosphere.
But lost in the post-vote beltway analysis is the fact that this is also a big win for national security. While that’s not the most apparent result of the vote, it’s one that should resonate with the Republicans who otherwise champion the military but bristle at environmental protections.
That’s because the rule puts otherwise wasted methane to use, boosting our energy security and reducing our dependence on foreign sources of energy. Since natural gas is sold globally, and Russia is a major exporter, boosting US production like this rule does cuts into Russia’s share of the market. The more we produce, the less our European allies have to rely on Russian gas for their power supply.
By making our natural gas production more efficient, this rule also lessens our reliance on even less friendly fossil fuel exporters, including countries to which we all too often send American soldiers. By producing energy in the United States and limiting pollution, we’re making the world safer.
Natural gas is not exactly beloved by the environmental community, but it can take much of the credit for reducing the use of coal, which is much dirtier and more harmful. So while some may say that Obama’s environmental rules constituted a ‘War on Coal,’ in reality it was the cheap and plentiful supply of natural gas that put coal out of business.
Ultimately, we’ll need to transition from natural gas to renewable and zero-carbon energies like solar, wind, and next generation nuclear power if we want to maintain low-cost energy and a safe and secure climate. Even with protections in place, gas remains a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, which cause plenty of problems.
As a just-published report from the intelligence community details, climate change is a major military issue, acting as a “threat multiplier,” which creates the conditions—drought and food scarcity for example—that breed instability and conflict. Extreme weather events, made worse by climate change, disrupt local communities and weaken the civic institutions that act as a bulwark against terrorists and extremism. The report also notes that the ecological damage done by climate change has human impacts. Communities that could once comfortably live off the land are forced out of the fields and forests and into urban areas where tensions run high and food supplies low.
No one is saying that reducing methane leaks from gas drilling will prevent the next major conflict or humanitarian crisis. But with a problem as big as climate change, and as multifaceted as national security, every step is worthwhile. The better we protect our environment, the better we can protect people.
Making sure companies capture and sell the gas drilled on public lands ensures that the American taxpayers get the biggest return possible for leasing that land. For anyone growing cynical watching beltway politics, Wednesday’s victory on the methane rule was a rare and welcome reminder that common sense can still win out over the deep pockets of the oil and gas lobby. The vote was a win for taxpayers, a win for the environment, a win for national security, and a win for democracy.
Brigadier General Stephen A. Cheney, USMC (Ret.) is the CEO of the American Security Project.