As recently as two years ago, methane leaking from the natural gas supply chain was a niche climate issue, of concern to a handful of scientists and policy experts who understood that small leaks could contribute mightily to the global warming we're experiencing now.
That has changed. A succession of scientific studies has confirmed that leakage rates in at least some regions and parts of the supply chain are alarmingly high, and that extreme weather impacts can be made worse by short-lived climate pollutants such as methane.
And now for a piece of good news: Policymakers are taking notice.
Last week, Democrat Senator Chris Murphy and Republican Senator Susan Collins introduced the 2014 Super Pollutants Act. The bill calls for a new task force to oversee the reduction of super pollutants, including methane, black carbon, and hydrofluorocarbons.
It directs the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to create an inspection program to fix and monitor the leakiest natural gas production equipment. It would also require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to study leaks and venting of methane across facilities it has authority over, such as interstate natural gas pipelines.
Methane pollution is growing in part because of America’s increased oil and gas production; methane is the primary ingredient in natural gas.
The super-charged greenhouse gases targeted by the Senate bill don’t last as long as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but in the case of methane, it does 84 times more climate damage over the first 20 years after being released into the atmosphere.
Today, methane and other short-lived climate pollutants account for roughly one-third of the warming we're experiencing.
Methane awareness is growing
The Super Pollutants Act faces and uphill battle on Capitol Hill. But the bill – and the strong bipartisan leadership demonstrated by Senators Murphy and Collins – signals a growing awareness of the methane issue in Washington.
Another such sign came earlier this year when the White House made a crucial stride to tackle methane pollution.
It laid the groundwork for federal action with the creation of an inter-agency task force that is evaluating opportunities for methane reductions across the economy, including the oil and gas industry – the largest industrial source of U.S. methane emissions.
In March, this task force released a comprehensive roadmap for achieving significant methane reductions under existing law. An important part of this roadmap is a possible regulatory action the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act.
The methane strategy also calls for action by other agencies: Before the end of the year, the Department of Interior will decide how to deal with methane leakage and natural gas waste from production on federal lands.
It’s heartening to see methane getting the attention it deserves. Especially when we know with certainty this is a problem we can tackle.
Other opportunities for methane action
An analysis by ICF International and sponsored by Environmental Defense Fund found that there are many off-the-shelf, cost-effective technologies that could cut methane emissions by 40 percent in the next five years.
Thankfully, states are waking up to the urgent need for action, and some have shown great leadership on oil and gas emissions. In February, Colorado adopted the nation's toughest oil and gas air regulations anywhere in the nation and it's the first state to directly regulate methane.
Colorado’s air rules are a model, demonstrating that there are smart, cost-effective ways to regulate methane, ways that show ‘good for business’ and ‘good for the environment’ are not mutually exclusive. Wyoming and Ohio also adopted policies in the last year to drive down oil and gas air pollution.
Meanwhile, there’s a governor’s race going on in Pennsylvania where methane is coming up as a campaign issue.
While states will continue to lead, federal action is needed to get the whole country onboard. That’s why it’s so important to see both Congress and the executive branch stepping up on this issue.
Washington, which never moves on an issue before it’s ripe, is beginning to stir.