When the White House announced new initiatives to curb methane leaks recently , you could’ve been forgiven for momentarily tuning out. After all, we’re grown up enough to admit that when it comes to raw narrative adrenalin, the play-by-play of policy moves to stop climate change don’t always hit 10 out of 10.
Woke Up This Morning
So imagine for a minute that instead of working to reign in the molecules behind rising temperatures, we’re working to reign in the gangsters behind rising crime, in say, in 2000s-era New Jersey. At the center of the drama is carbon pollution, the Tony Soprano of the story and the chief criminal element in driving climate change.
But it’s not alone and there are other nefarious gases out there playing supporting roles. In particular, there’s methane, which, because it doesn’t loom as large in the picture, can get overlooked. Think of it as the Paulie Walnuts of our drama. It plays a smaller part in climate change, sure – accounting for only 10 percent of US emissions – but it’s highly dangerous and packs a real punch, trapping 86 times more heat than carbon dioxide over 20 years.
One of the major sources for methane is leaks stemming from the extraction and transport of natural gas. Proponents of natural gas like to portray the fuel as the smilier cousin to coal and oil as it generates less carbon dioxide when burned –just over half as much, in fact – supposedly giving us more time to bridge to a clean energy economy. But just like Paulie shaking down Christopher Moltisanti in the quote above, it’s buying that supposed time at a cost the climate will collect. How? Methane leaking from natural gas pipelines and other areas then traps even more heat, negating any benefit from reduced carbon pollution.
This is far from an abstract threat, too, as – in part due to new methods to extract shale gas – the US recently became the biggest oil and gas producer in the world. There are more sectors that also generate methane – agriculture, industry, livestock, and waste management, among others – but emissions from the oil and gas industry represent the low-hanging fruit that’s easiest to pick off with well-targeted regulations.
So back to the White House’s announcement. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – the FBI-like good guys in the story – will issue a new proposed rule later this year designed to reduce methane emissions from new and modified sources in the oil and gas sector by 40–45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025, thus helping fulfill another section of the president’s Climate Action Plan.
These methane regulations are not a comprehensive solution to climate change on their own – carbon pollution is still out there running the climate change show, after all – but they mark another important milestone for the US on the Road to Paris and will be essential to meeting the emissions-reduction target announced last November as part of the agreement with China.
Who Needs Regulation?
The companies responsible for methane leaks know that reducing emissions is actually cost effective and a boon to their bottom line. And they claim – kind of like mobsters staring into the mirror and seeing a few too many white hairs – that they were going to clean up their act anyways. So why do they need these regulations?
Time for a Reality Check
Just because something is more cost effective, however, doesn’t mean the market sends the right signals that now is the time to do it. As the US oil and gas sector has rapidly grown, extraction companies have invested more in expanding infrastructure than on making existing facilities cleaner and more efficient. The World Resources Institute studied natural gas extraction and distribution processes and found that various contractor specializations and contract terms reduce the incentive to go the extra mile and ensure wells are airtight. If these trends hold, methane emissions would rise 25 percent in the next decade.
The takeaway here is that – with oil and gas companies stalling on reducing methane emissions on their own – we need regulations to compel them to do so. And we need them now.
The Obama Administration’s proposed commonsense standards for methane complement other existing and proposed regulations on carbon emissions from power plants and vehicles that together put the US on track to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
Admittedly, the proposed methane regulations aren’t perfect, as they cover only new and existing sources, which some activists say is not ambitious enough. Even with these limitations, however, these regulations show the international community that the US is serious about cutting emissions, despite a Congress hostile towards climate action.
One final point to note. The Obama Administration has often touted natural gas as a “bridge fuel” that can help cover our energy needs as coal-fired power plants are phased out. But it’s still a fossil fuel and simply shifting from coal to gas won’t keep the US on track to meet its emissions reduction goals, even if methane emissions are reined in. In fact, overemphasizing gas runs the risk of siphoning investment away from renewable energy sources that produce truly clean power.
So let’s applaud these regulations, but keep our eyes focused on the fight for a renewable energy future.
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