The world gets serious about cutting methane pollution

Mark Brownstein

This is the Methane Moment.

As policymakers prepare for the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, data continues to show that the methane problem is worse than we thought.

In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we cannot reach the Paris climate goals by tackling only carbon dioxide.

Cutting methane from fossil fuels, livestock production and other industries is the fastest way to slow today’s warming, even while we continue to decarbonize our energy systems.

Fortunately, this urgency is finally being recognized at the highest levels in ways it hadn’t before, setting the stage for real progress.

It’s worth considering how we reached this point. Unlike so much of the climate fight, decision makers mostly did listen to the science on methane. That science is producing a new ecosystem of satellite-based measurement tools to help cut emissions at much as possible, as soon as possible. 

How we drove the science that made the case

Experts have long known that methane is a potent greenhouse pollutant. But it was almost always treated as an afterthought — partly because it breaks down much faster than carbon dioxide.

But for 20 years after its release, methane packs over 80 times the warming power of CO2. That’s why methane pollution from human activities is responsible for at least 25% of today’s warming.

A decade ago, as a boom in unconventional oil and gas drilling was making the U.S. the world’s top oil producer, EDF realized that methane could be a serious problem. Trouble was, nobody had any real data on how much was escaping from where, or who was responsible.  

It was clear that the conventional process of simply waiting for governments and universities to figure it out would take too long.

So in 2012, EDF began organizing a series of 16 independent, peer-reviewed scientific studies involving 150 researchers from academic, industry and public institutions to understand how much methane was escaping from the U.S. oil and gas supply chain.

A year later, the first paper took the industry and policymakers by storm, revealing wide discrepancies in the distribution of emissions by specific activities and questioning the accuracy of existing emissions data based on desktop estimates.

In 2018, a synthesis of the studies concluded that U.S. oil and gas methane emissions were 60% higher than EPA estimates.

This spring, new research led by EDF scientist Ilissa Ocko showed that a rapid, full-scale effort to reduce methane pollution across major sectors could slow worldwide warming by as much as 30%.

The paper estimates that we could cut emissions in half by 2030 using existing solutions — preventing a quarter of a degree C of warming by mid-century, and over half a degree C by 2100. That’s huge.

Turning data into action

The depth and breadth of the methane science almost immediately ignited a series of important policy actions.

In 2014, with bipartisan support, EDF worked with industry leaders in Colorado to create the world’s first set of regulations limiting oil and gas methane emissions.

Those rules became the inspiration for federal policy announced two years later, which in turn set the stage for the first set of international methane goals in a collaboration between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. 

Now, the Biden administration is preparing to publish new rules requiring oil and gas producers to cut methane pollution from 900,000 facilities nationwide, making good on the promise he made last January to not only restore but expand safeguards unlawfully rolled back by his predecessor.

Methane science has also set the stage for methane to assume a newly prominent role at COP26 in Glasgow, where a growing number of countries are signing up to pledge a 30% cut in their collective methane emissions by 2030.

In December, the European Commission will release new policies requiring companies to measure, report and verify methane emissions; improve efforts to find and fix methane leaks; and end routine venting and flaring — the industry’s embarrassingly wasteful habit of simply setting fire to extra methane.

Pinpointing methane with precision

Enforcing policies like these, as well as holding companies accountable for a long list of voluntary methane commitments, requires enormous amounts of emissions data covering operations around the globe (and not just from oil and gas; agriculture and other sectors are also important).

For this, there is only one solution: satellites.

EDF scientists have published pioneering research proving the power of satellite technology to measure methane emissions on a global scale.

Those findings proved the concept behind the 2018 announcement by EDF President Fred Krupp that we were going to launch a satellite of our own to help both companies and countries locate, measure and cut methane emissions faster.

Now being built by a newly created EDF subsidiary, MethaneSAT will measure emissions with unparalleled precision, tracking methane at levels as low as three parts per billion.

The data will be public, free of charge and on an ongoing basis, so that stakeholders and the public can see and compare results.  

MethaneSAT will join an expanding ecosystem of remote sensing instruments that together will give us a clear and comprehensive picture on progress on the ground in near-real time.

Equipped with that data, we have a fighting chance to make a crucial difference for our climate.