White House charts path to cut methane pollution

Mark Brownstein

When President Obama first declared methane a critical issue, in his landmark speech at Georgetown University last June, he took a concern that had been percolating in the scientific and environmental communities and put it on the climate agenda. At the time, there was still wide debate about whether methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, was a real issue. But the last several months has brought greater clarity with both an improved scientific understanding of the problem and an awareness of the solutions. Today’s White House announcement, which lays out the Administration’s next steps and a timeline  to reduce methane emissions, adds to this momentum and is a welcome display of leadership on a critical environmental and energy security issue that requires both federal and state action. 

We’ve been anxiously awaiting the internal administrative task force to finish its work and the news couldn’t come at a better time, for two reasons.

First, reducing methane pollution is an urgent environmental problem. Unburned natural gas is primarily methane. Over the first twenty years after it is released into the atmosphere, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) in trapping more heat at the Earth’s surface, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). More than one third of the warming in the next couple of decades due to current emissions will be from short-lived greenhouse gases. And these emissions are on the rise. IPCC data suggests that about 30 percent of the warming we will experience over the next 20 years as a result of this year’s greenhouse gas emissions will come from methane. Oil and gas activities are the largest industrial source of U.S. methane emissions. Hence, targeting reductions here, particularly where known solutions exist, is highly effective.

Second, addressing methane pollution is also an urgent priority for national energy security. Recent events in the Ukraine remind us of this, in that access to domestic energy resources provide a measure of security to our nation and its allies. How is it possible, then, given the strategic value of the abundance of U.S. natural gas supplies, that we allow it to be wasted through unnecessary venting, flaring and leaks? This is even more perplexing when you consider that we have the technologies necessary to avoid much of this. And further, these technologies are very cost effective to deploy and maintain, and in some cases, even save companies money because the avoided loss of natural gas bears a market value (worth between $4 and $5 today).

This is the message of a recent study by ICF International which concluded that we could reduce projected losses of natural gas over the next five years by 40 percent for less than a penny per thousand cubic feet of gas produced. To put this in context, a 40 percent reduction is the equivalent of 54 LNG tankers, every year!

Can you imagine the public outcry if the United States lost 54 LNG tankers on the high seas, every year? It would be a national crisis. And yet, that is exactly what is happening in the United States today. Fifty-four tankers worth of natural gas, literally, are vanishing into thin air. Yet, this is a problem we can afford to solve for pennies on the dollar.

So, given how important it is to the environment and national energy security to put an end to the waste of natural gas and the methane pollution it creates, today’s question isn’t why the Administration is acting to announce a national policy to reduce methane, the question is what took us so long to get started?