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Why Methane Is Having a Moment

The greenhouse gas hasn't gotten the attention such a potent carbon-polluter deserves. But that's about to change.

David McNew/Getty Images

Methane, carbon dioxide’s lesser-known cousin, is a big and growing problem for the planet. The chief component of natural gas, methane is also emitted during oil drilling. While it only accounts for 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., this chemical packs a potent dose of warming, 84 times more effective than CO2 at absorbing heat. Methane breaks down more quickly and poses fewer direct risks to human health. But it’s already contributed to more than 30 percent of the climate change the planet has experienced.

You wouldn’t have known any of this from the relative lack of attention paid to methane in efforts to combat climate change—until just recently. In March, President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the two countries would team up to slash methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent by 2025 and to regulate emissions from existing oil and gas operations, which account for a large majority of methane leaks. In April, Gina McCarthy, the EPA’s chief administrator, named tackling methane emissions as a top priority for the agency in 2016. And in coming weeks—if not days—the EPA will present its finalized regulations to control emissions from new oil and gas wells.

The agency has only just begun to grapple with regulating the oil and gas infrastructure that already exists (and is projected to account for 90 percent of projected methane emissions in 2018). But the rules for new operations will represent a crucial step forward. Though oil and gas drilling and exploration release the majority of methane pollution in this country, until recently federal methane regulation had mostly been either voluntary or tied to other air standards.

Because of the chemical’s capacity for warming, the EPA’s restrictions on new and existing methane sources in the oil and gas industry could be the most consequential move to slow climate change that we’ll see over the next several years. And the rules come at a propitious time politically, several months after a ruptured natural gas well at Aliso Canyon, in the Porter Ranch section of Los Angeles, caused the largest methane leak in U.S. history. The incident has set off public alarms about the dangers of methane. But even before the leak, nearly 70 percent of registered voters said they favored the EPA’s proposed methane rules. If there is one thing Americans can agree on in a fractious election year, combatting methane, it seems, is it.

The majority of methane emissions comes from the industry that produces what is now America’s largest power source: natural gas. In 2014, natural gas systems released 176 million metric tons of methane, nearly a quarter of total emissions. The second largest source was cattle digestion, which accounted for 22.5 percent of emissions. (Petroleum systems contributed 9.3 percent.)

Energy experts, energy companies, and even some environmentalists tout natural gas as an essential fuel to combat climate change—as a way to bridge the energy gap during a transition from reliance on coal to renewable sources. But many environmentalists say methane’s extreme warming potential undermines any of natural gas’s benefits. “The promise of natural gas as a lower carbon alternative to coal depends fundamentally on addressing methane emissions,” says Matt Watson of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate and Energy Program. “Methane emissions undermine the climate advantage that natural gas can have over coal—that’s just a basic fact.”

Each year the oil and gas industry loses nearly 10 million metric tons of methane during production, processing, and transport. That leakage makes natural gas an environmental “wild card” with hard-to-control emissions, even as the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts energy generation from natural gas to swell to 31 percent by 2040. “What we’ve learned from the science over the past several years is: Reducing methane is the most impactful, immediate thing we can do to slow the rate of warming,” said the EDF’s Mark Brownstein at an April 27 “conversation on methane hosted in Washington by Bloomberg Government. “The opportunity is enormous.”

But, in a narrative that so often repeats itself when it comes to climate, effectively seizing that opportunity will depend on alliances among often-unfriendly groups: government, industry, and environmental activists.

The oil and gas industry worries, not surprisingly, about new methane regulations hurting profits and productivity. And it’s already feeling prickly about the environmental outcry against fracking for natural gas—the exposés, the documentaries, the protests. “When any industry … has the kind of attacks this industry had, starting out with the flaming faucets, induced seismicity—a lot of things they feel are attacking their right to exist,” Mark Boling of Southwest Energy, an oil and gas company based in Houston, said at the methane forum in Washington, “that defensive posture modifies itself into a hesitancy to acknowledge legitimate risk.”

Meanwhile, so-called “fractivists” continue lobbying state and federal actors to tighten regulations or issue moratoriums; they’ve won impressive victories in states like New York, which has banned fracking altogether. Those who see fracking as an ominous practice, one with environmental consequences and dangers that go beyond methane emissions, won’t stop organizing or slow their criticisms because of new regulations on methane emissions.

But industry and government collaboration is budding. On March 30, the EPA announced a voluntary initiative that sets up a five-year time frame for companies to “make and track ambitious commitments to reduce methane emissions.” Among the founding members of this Methane Challenge Program were the country’s largest electric company, Duke Energy, and SoCal gas, the company in charge of the well that ruptured in Porter Ranch, California.

Why would energy companies—some of them, anyway—volunteer to cap methane emissions? It’s partly because capturing methane leaks could be shrewd business; the gas that is captured can be returned to the production process. Even so, just 41 companies have joined the effort thus far, likely because of fears about the costs of new monitoring and detection equipment.

For environmentalists like Watson, that level of industry participation is no surprise. He’s wary of the word “voluntary” altogether, Watson says, because it’s an inadequate substitute for stronger regulations—and because industry groups so often do not elect to participate when they don’t have to.

Because captured methane can go back into the production cycle, environmentalists and the EPA tout its conservation as cost-effective. But in what Brownstein calls a “reflexively anti-regulation” industry that’s already dealing with spiraling prices, the idea of cost savings isn’t universally accepted. The consulting firm ICF International finds that oil and gas companies could cut methane emissions by 40 percent by spending less than one cent per 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas. But according to Boling and others in the energy industry, the math is murkier, especially for small firms with lower outputs. “Right now, the equipment, the leak detection and monitoring equipment, is not cheap,” Boling said. “We have to work on cost, we have to work on reliability.”

But much of the technology needed to cut emissions already exists, and researchers continue to make strides in developing new and more reliable methods. A June 2015 working paper from the World Resources Institute, a research organization focused on natural resource management, recommended common-sense measures like annual maintenance along transmission lines to ensure equipment seals are solid. (Leakage from seals accounted for 19 percent of natural gas methane emissions in 2013.) Devices that regulate the temperature, pressure, and flow of natural gas account for nearly another one-third of methane emissions. To eliminate leakage there, WRI suggests companies invest in electric or compressed air-powered devices. If the EPA’s final rule on new sources looks similar to its proposed version, companies won’t have a choice: They’ll need to limit emissions from equipment as well as locate and repair leaks promptly.

As the country discovered during the Aliso Canyon leak, gas and oil producers can also use high-tech means to identify slip-ups quickly and limit the damage. At Aliso Canyon, scientists used infrared cameras to create a full picture of the extent of the leak; the spooky images of methane plumes, when they hit the internet, also served as a visual wake-up call to many members of the public. A study released this month used infrared cameras to survey more than 8,000 wells in seven U.S. basins and found methane emissions at 494 wells, some of which were high-volume leaks.

Aliso Canyon showed that even a single leak can be catastrophic. But infrared monitoring—recommended, but not required, in the EPA’s proposed rules—can do a lot to help limit the damage. For now, infrared monitoring will be voluntary, leaving it up to oil and gas companies.

Stringent rules in some states—such as in Colorado or Wyoming—are picking up some of the slack where federal guidelines fall short. But if the EPA’s final rules for new gas and oil sources, and the agency’s forthcoming regulations on existing operations, bind companies to stringent standards and monitoring, the results would be monumental.

However successful we may be at sealing up methane emissions, environmentalists opposed to fracking for natural gas will still continue to fight the practice based on the other problems it creates: water contamination, for instance, along with the day-to-day pollution from heavy construction. Meanwhile, the oil and gas lobby will continue to balk reflexively at new regulations. But at long last, the need to stop methane pollution is being spotlighted and prioritized as essential to meeting the world’s short-term climate goals. Besides, as Watson says, “There’s not a lot in society these days that you can get 70 or 80 percent of Americans to agree on.”

Correction: This article has been corrected to reflect the proper spelling of Matt Watson’s name.