The free ride for methane, a climate-warming gas 84 times stronger than carbon dioxide, is finally nearing an end in Washington.
While one atmosphere-heating pollutant after another has fallen under regulators’ sway, powerful petrochemical interests and, until recently, scientific uncertainty about the scale of the problem, have thwarted methane restrictions. That will begin to change in coming weeks when the Biden administration proposes the most aggressive federal methane mandates yet for oil and gas wells.
“Science tells us we have vanishingly little time left to slow global warming before we start passing serious climate tipping points,” said Sarah Smith, director of the Clean Air Task Force’s super pollutants program. “The fastest way to pump the brakes is to reduce methane pollution.”
Curbing methane has acquired new urgency as the consequences of climate change become more apparent in drought-fueled forest fires ravaging the Western U.S. and intense coastal storms drenching cities with record rainfalls.
The administration’s coming regulations, to be proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, will address leaks from nearly a million oil and gas wells – among the largest sources of the gas. The EPA proposals would order more robust inspections and repairs of equipment at new wells and would force companies to plug leaks on hundreds of thousands of wells that were drilled long ago but have so far escaped restrictions.
The proposals also are expected to block drillers from simply venting methane that accompanies oil directly into the air or burning it off, with flares so concentrated they can be seen from space. That is done in some regions because methane, despite being the chief ingredient of natural gas, is often treated as an unwanted byproduct when it emerges from oil wells and there aren’t pipelines to carry it to paying customers.
The move comes after President Joe Biden unveiled a plan to persuade other countries to slash emissions of the gas 30 per cent by the end of the decade.
The delay in taking action has frustrated environmentalists because existing technology can capture the vast majority of methane from oil and gas sites – making the industry’s emissions low-hanging fruit in the fight against global warming.
“The leakage is so bad, not just here but in Russia and many other places, and it’s so cheap and easy to fix,” said David Doniger, director of the climate and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “With the lifetime of methane being much shorter than CO2, the damage it does is in the next couple of decades – and, conversely, the benefit of not emitting it – is going to be felt in the next couple of decades.”
Yet some environmentalists worry the administration’s push is ignoring methane coming from agriculture, which is responsible for 36 per cent of emissions from activities in the U.S., according to the EPA. More than two dozen green groups have petitioned the EPA to write new regulations reducing methane emissions from industrial dairy and hog operations.
When it comes to new methane mandates, the administration’s regulatory focus is trained squarely on the oil and gas industry.
© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.