The loophole is particularly frustrating because methane is the greenhouse gas most in need of immediate restriction. Stopping leaks and flares of this potent gas from oil and gas fields would, in fact, be the biggest, fastest, and cheapest step the United States could take to protect the climate, because its effects would be felt almost immediately.
Indeed, they could, over the next five years, keep the United States on track to meet its promise to halve its emissions by 2030. They would also make a big difference in the climate crisis in the short term. and gain time for new actions.
This opportunity – and, conversely, the huge risk that comes from not limiting methane emissions from oil and gas – has been obscured by bad measurement. So far, the United States has failed to assess both the size and impact of methane leaks. The EPA simply accepts reports from oil and gas companies of their own methane leaks, and according to these, the total emissions amount to only 8.5 million tons. Yet whenever outsiders take a close look at an oil or gas deposit, they find far more methane leaks than the industry admits. Independent estimates range from 80% higher to double the official figures.
Equally important, each molecule of methane emitted is 85 times more destructive to the climate than a molecule of carbon dioxide, even though it is far less durable. The CO2 emitted in 2020 will persist in the atmosphere for at least 300 years, while in 2020 the methane will break down in just 12 years. During these 12 years, however, it will act as a blowtorch on the atmosphere.
In other words, the impact of methane is greatest now, just as the climate crisis is hitting hardest. EPA charts show that oil and methane gas have an impact equivalent to just 212 million tonnes of CO2, or about 3% of total greenhouse gases. But combining the real volume of methane leaks with its powerful warming effects over the next decade, fugitive methane creates six times more climate disruption – the equivalent of more than 1,200 tonnes of CO2, or one-fifth of all greenhouse gases in the United States.
The good news is that it is easy to drastically limit methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Some profitable producers release 90% less than their competitors. About half of today’s fugitive methane could be captured and sold as a pipeline at no net cost. Over 75% could be captured at nominal cost. One piece of oil patch equipment – the pneumatic controller – leaks 61% of reported methane, even though zero-emissions controllers exist and are required in several states.
Although preventing fugitive methane costs little money, it takes time. And the wild segment of the oil industry is reluctant to spend that time, whether it’s building a pipeline to collect the gas or laying power lines to use cleaner electric drill kits. Some states engage in this resistance.
In the Texas Permian Basin, for example, the Texas Railroad Commission takes a lax approach to limiting methane. Next door in New Mexico, where industry is better regulated, the Permian releases only a third of the climate pollution from oil and gas production than Texas. Closing the Texas Permian methane leaks alone would reduce near-term US climate pollution by about 10%.
Some of America’s biggest oil producers – BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil – could quietly favor Biden’s tough methane capture rules, to prevent their more daring competitors from gaining a market advantage.
National regulation is needed, and President Joe Biden has fought hard for it. But the current EPA proposal has problems. Depleted wells that no longer produce significant oil would be exempt from monitoring — even though, cumulatively, they may leak half of the total methane from oil fields in the United States. Worse, the rules would allow oil producers to vent or flare any gas from wells that don’t have access to pipelines. The EPA should establish rules comprehensive enough to reduce oil and gas methane leaks by 75% within five years, not 10. Flaring and venting should be banned; all gas from oil wells must be captured; and wells that are no longer producing much oil or gas should be properly shut down.
By curbing methane leaks from oil and gas, the Biden administration could, in five years, reduce the climate footprint of the US energy sector by 15%. That could mean fewer floods in Kentucky, fires in California, hurricanes in Texas and heat waves in Arizona – not in 2100, but in the next two decades. Methane pollution needs more regulation, and fast.
More other Bloomberg Opinion writers:
• Surprise Manchin-Schumer deal would be huge win: editorial
• Methane is a climate problem Bitcoin can help solve: Trung Phan
• Exxon’s Partial Net Zero Target Is Really Helpful: Liam Denning
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Carl Pope is a past president of the Sierra Club and the co-author, with Michael R. Bloomberg, of “Climate of Hope.”
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion