What science is saying about methane pollution, and how the world is finally listening

Steven Hamburg

When I served on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board from 2013-2019, I witnessed firsthand how this administration dismisses science.

Under the Trump administration, leading academic experts on the board — which evaluates the scientific integrity of EPA proposals — were routinely replaced by individuals with careers spent in industry, often not using their scientific training, and professional skeptics, those who have built careers criticizing well-established science, including climate change. Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist who now runs the EPA, told the SAB in response to my query that there was no time to consider new research on climate pollution in considering the roll back of climate and clean air protections.

During the pandemic, even as new research suggested that air pollution could worsen the impacts of COVID-19, the EPA rushed through a proposal to limit the science that can be used to determine public health protections.

Following the science on climate change

The COVID-19 crisis has made the impacts of ignoring science tragically clear. The same could be said for the climate crisis — but in this case, we still have time to flatten the curve.

The origins of the climate crisis are well understood. We know what’s driving it. We have predicted the impacts and we’re seeing those predictions play out in a drier, hotter, wildfire-prone West, more hurricane impacts in the East and Gulf Coast and floods in the heartland. Most importantly, we know what’s speeding up the pace of warming: first among them methane pollution, including from the oil and gas industry.

EDF was founded by scientists and we still use science to determine what issues to focus on the most effective course of action to solve these challenges.

While I and other scientists have been studying climate change for decades, in recent years EDF has helped focus attention on methane, a fast-acting climate pollutant 84 times more potent than CO2 over the first 20 years after its release. We know now that human caused methane emissions are responsible for at least 25% of the warming we’re experiencing today. And we also know that limiting methane pollution from the production and delivery of oil and gas is a key element necessary to slowing the rate of warming.

Colorless, odorless, invisible methane is the main component of natural gas. It frequently leaks from oil and gas operations, including valves, tanks, pipes and other equipment. Until recently, no one had rigorously measured the amount of methane that was escaping to the atmosphere, the standard line was ‘it would be silly to waste product’. As a result the EPA relied on outdated emission factors— not actual field measurements — to quantify methane emissions.

As we all know, an invisible threat is often underestimated. So EDF engaged with hundreds of scientists to quantify those emissions, coordinating the largest measurement campaign to quantify methane emissions ever undertaken. The latest piece of the puzzle comes from the world’s largest oil field, the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico, where we engaged a diversity of scientists to make intensive measurements of the quantity and pattern of methane emissions from space, towers, aircraft and vehicles.

The world’s largest oil field: a hotspot for emissions

EDF’s PermianMAP initiative, shows that methane emissions in the densely drilled heart of the Permian basin are about 2.5 times what the EPA emissions inventory indicates they are. This finding was backed up by a detailed analysis led by EDF scientists of more than 200,000 individual readings over an 11-month period collected from the European Space Agency’s satellite-based TROPOMI instrument. The first such in-depth, space-based and near real-time analysis — a harbinger of what is to come when MethaneSAT is providing even more precise data starting in 2023. MethaneSAT is being developed and launched by an EDF affiliate organization, MethaneSAT LLC.

The data from the Permian show that the amount of methane coming from oil and gas operations is enough to meet the needs of 2 million U.S. households every year. That triples the 20-year climate impact of natural gas produced in the basin, undermining the idea that natural gas is a clean fuel.

These data are driving action to curb methane pollution, even as the Trump administration seeks to roll back federal methane safeguards this week. New Mexico is using the data EDF, in collaboration with many researchers, is collecting to guide the development of its first rules to limit methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. Last year BP started using drone-mounted sensors to check for methane leaks in U.S. operations, including the Permian, and announced it will use continuous methane monitoring technologies in new operations worldwide.

EDF is also coordinating research on methane emissions from the oil and gas supply chain in the EU, which is considering introducing methane regulations.

Having credible data and making it public, whether from satellites or from closer to the ground, will spur action to curb this climate threat — and provides a means to verify if that action is effective.

When John Snow, a 19th century London physician, first tried to convince his peers that contaminated water was the cause of cholera, they remained unconvinced. But during an 1854 outbreak near his home, Snow was able to create a map that clearly linked cholera deaths to people who drew water from the same neighborhood pump. He convinced local officials to remove the pump handle, and the epidemic quickly subsided.

One hundred and sixty-six years later, Snow’s work still resonates. When you’re fighting a crisis, having the right data — and elected officials who act upon it — can save lives. It’s true for COVID-19 and for the climate crisis, too.