White House Attacks Heat-Trapping Methane, Second Biggest Climate Pollutant

The White House today released its long-awaited Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions. Promised in President Obama's Climate Action Plan last June, the methane strategy is a big step in the right direction.  

Methane (CH4) is a powerful heat-trapping pollutant, much more potent pound for pound than carbon dioxide, and is the second most important climate pollutant overall. Curbing the big sources of methane is essential to meeting the President’s climate protection target of reducing U.S. heat-trapping pollution 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.  And curbing methane will also help reduce other toxic and smog-causing pollutants from oil and gas development and other industries.

The strategy is a good plan of action.  But more needs to be done to bring the promised actions to reality, and we look forward to working with the Obama Administration to establish effective methane leakage standards.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) releases an inventory every year of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions – heat-trapping pollution – broken out by sector. According to the latest draft inventory, in 2012 the U.S. emitted about 6.5 billion metric tons of heat-trapping pollutants, rated in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).  About 9 percent, or 560 million metric tons (MMT) CO2e, was in the form of methane.

However, the full climate impact of methane emissions is even greater than the current EPA inventory indicates, because the agency hasn’t yet updated methane’s potency factor (known as the global warming potential or GWP) to incorporate the latest scientific information. To reflect the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the 100-year GWP for methane needs to be updated from 21 (the value EPA currently uses) to 34.  That means that pound for pound, methane traps 34 times more heat than carbon dioxide, measured over a 100-year timeframe.  Using the current GWP of 34, our 2012 methane emissions actually were equivalent to more than 900 million metric tons of CO2e – 60 percent more than the inventory number. 

Moreover, methane packs most of its climate-changing punch into a shorter period.  It decays into carbon dioxide in about 12 years, but while it’s in the air it traps heat like crazy.  Over a 20-year timeframe, methane is 86 times more powerful than CO2. In fact, about a third of the warming effects felt over the next couple of decades will be from methane emissions released in the near-term.   

That means that swiftly and effectively curbing methane pollution will do even more good than the Administration’s strategy takes credit for. And as the strategy notes, reducing methane will also have other positive economic, public health, and safety benefits.

The largest industrial source of methane leakage is the rapidly expanding oil and gas industry, responsible for 29 percent of total emissions according to the inventory.  Other key contributors are agriculture operations (36 percent overall, but comprises among others the beef industry – 18 percent, and the dairy industry – 11 percent), landfills (18 percent), coal mining (10 percent) and wastewater treatment (2 percent). The White House methane strategy lists initiatives to curb methane pollution, agency by agency, including enhanced standards, increased collaboration among government agencies and with industry, and voluntary action.

Through these actions, the White House estimates that methane emissions equivalent to as much as 90 MMT CO2e can be reduced in 2020, or about a fifth of that year’s emissions. (Using the updated GWP of 34, that number would grow to 145 MMT CO2e.)  We look forward to working with various government agencies to implement these measures.

Cutting methane leaks from the oil and gas industry

Oil and gas methane leakage is the U.S.’s second largest industrial source of heat-trapping pollution, exceeded only by the carbon pollution from power plants.  The strategy recognizes that cutting methane emissions from the oil and gas industry is both practical and cost-effective using proven and commercially available technologies. Since natural gas is mainly methane, the amount leaked into the air also represents lost product and lost revenue for the industry.  Capturing methane instead of letting it escape allows companies to ship it down their pipelines and sell to customers, or use it themselves for heat and power generation.  Studies show that at least 40 percent and as much as 60-80 percent of methane leaks can be captured cost-effectively.  

While some companies use up-to-date controls and practices, voluntary reduction efforts alone have not been adequate, as evidenced by the sector’s sustained high emission levels.  We need Clean Air Act standards to level the playing field. 

One egregious source of methane emissions is the venting and flaring of methane gas from oil wells, such as in the Baaken region of North Dakota.  Absent effective pollution standards, methane and CO2 from venting and flaring will continue to grow as oil production continues to ramp up.  In addition, companies continue to use thousands of leaking pneumatic devices and compressors throughout the sector, even though better technologies, and better ways to repair them, already exist.  Much more can still be done for more effective leak detection, including using infrared cameras, and to assure quick repairs.

In an important first step, in 2012 EPA issued standards covering volatile organic compounds (not methane, but the harmful pollutants that cause ozone smog) from the oil and gas sector.  But these standards left the vast majority of the sector’s methane leaks uncontrolled. One significant shortcoming is that the standards don’t apply to the oil wells mentioned above.  They also don’t reach existing equipment already in operation and methane leakage sources downstream of natural gas processing plants.

We support the announced plan for EPA (1) to put the latest oil and gas sector methane data out for expert review in a series of white papers, (2) to determine next fall what additional standards need to be set, and (3) to fully complete those standards (including state plans to implement them where needed) by the end of 2016. NRDC supports setting strong standards under Section 111 of the Clean Air Act that we believe, using the strategy’s own words, would “maximize cost-effective” methane reductions from the oil and gas sector across the country.  At a minimum, these standards should cover the candidates for control cited in the strategy, including co-producing wells, liquids unloading, leaks, pneumatic devices, and compressors. EPA has both the authority and the responsibility to set robust standards for these and other sources under the Clean Air Act, and it now has the White House’s support.  Stronger standards should: (a) target methane pollution directly; (b) address new equipment and existing equipment already in use; (c) cover all types of wells (and associated equipment), including wells that mainly produce oil along with some gas; and (d) address all significant sources of pollution throughout the sector. See NRDC’s Leaking Profits report and EDF’s report for more information on methane reduction technologies.

Methane leakage is a critical problem in the oil and gas industry, and reducing this pollution is imperative. However, it’s important to note that methane pollution is only one of many environmental and public health impacts associated with oil and natural gas development. Threats to drinking water, risks for human health, and other community impacts urgently need federal attention, as well as stronger regulation at the state and local levels.  And we need stronger policies to move away from fossil fuels to clean energy. 

Reducing methane emissions from the agricultural operations

The strategy seeks to reduce emissions from agricultural operations through greater voluntary actions, chief among which are opportunities for manure management with anaerobic digestion and biogas utilization (see illustrative example of Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese in Waterloo, WI, in our recent report on combined heat and power systems, an energy-efficiency technology).

In June, in partnership with the dairy industry, the Department of Agriculture, EPA and the Department of Energy will release a Biogas Roadmap outlining voluntary strategies, to help the dairy industry achieve its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from its entire value chain 25 percent by 2020. The Department of Agriculture will also continue to support biogas system deployment by providing financial and technical assistance.

We applaud these efforts.  But we also note the potential for measures to incentivize additional management practices in cattle and dairy grazing operations that can reduce methane emissions by up to 20-25 percent. These cattle ranching and farming practices have broader benefits for biodiversity and ecosystem services, including resilience to climate change.  They include optimizing (1) the pasture/feed; (2) the animal/breed; and (3) grazing and ranch management. We encourage the White House to expand the plan to incentive these “climate smart” practices that have broader ecosystem benefits.

Reducing methane emissions from landfills

Landfills release very large amounts of methane, as garbage decays.  The strategy commits EPA to update standards for new and modified municipal landfills, including methane emissions. By the middle of 2014, the EPA is also expected to take initial steps to establish standards, by working with various stakeholders, to reduce methane emissions from existing landfills. EPA will also seek to spur voluntary approaches to productively use methane captured from landfills, and in partnership with the Department of Agriculture it will challenge producers, retailers and communities to generate less waste.

Landfill methane can be captured, and the gas burned to generate energy. Our recent report on combined heat and power systems showcases the Finley Buttes Regional Landfill in Boardman, OR, a great example of how to capture methane and put it to good use.

Reducing methane emissions from coal mining

The strategy commits the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to start developing in early 2014 a program for capturing and using or disposing of methane from mines on federal lands. The EPA is expected to continue working with industry to further encourage the voluntary recovery and use of methane, building on the effort of 20 mines thus far.

Improving the measurement of methane

The strategy recognizes the still incomplete knowledge of the magnitude of methane emissions across the United States. We applaud the strategy’s inter-agency commitment to better understand methane emissions and to develop more robust measurement and monitoring techniques.  This includes the development of cost-effective measurement technologies, enhancing EPA’s inventory, and improving modeling of emissions.

Providing global leadership on methane emissions

The U.S. is a recognized global leader in helping other countries reduce methane emissions. The strategy seeks to continue and strengthen these efforts through leadership at the Climate and Clean Air Coalition that includes nearly 40 countries, and providing technical expertise through the Global Methane Initiative. These international efforts to control agriculture, landfill, and oil and gas methane leakage are helpful steps. Scaling them will be essential to solving the global methane emissions that are driving climate change. In particular, the U.S. needs to ensure that its work with countries to explore “unconventional gas” goes hand in hand with requiring strong environmental safeguards.

The White House methane strategy announced today is a good plan of action.  The Administration has committed itself to bring the promised actions to reality.  We look forward to working with the Obama Administration to establish effective methane leakage standards and on other necessary actions to safeguard our health, our communities, and our climate.

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