Reducing methane will help hit the brakes on runaway global warming

Fred Krupp

At the Aspen Ideas Festival in Miami Beach, I spoke about the urgent need for swift, effective action to drive down climate pollution. On the same day, the World Meteorological Organization warned that the Earth now has a 50/50 chance of surpassing 1.5 degrees Celsius warming within five years.

It was a stark reminder that as governments wrestle with the necessary task of cutting the biggest contributor to climate change, carbon dioxide, many are overlooking a low-cost, high-reward action that could serve as an emergency brake on runaway warming: clamping down on methane pollution.

The need for fast methane reductions

Methane is the main component of natural gas and its emissions are increasing rapidly. That’s particularly dangerous because methane is more than 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide in its heat-trapping potential over 20 years.

The methane pollution released worldwide this year is expected to warm the planet more over the next 10 years than all the carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels this year.

But this very potency also means that cutting methane emissions offers the fastest way to slow global warming. EDF has found that a rapid, full-scale effort to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas operations, agriculture and other sectors could slow the worldwide rate of warming by as much as 30%.

According to government estimates, U.S. oil and gas operations currently waste enough methane to fuel 17 million homes1.

U.S. support for cutting methane waste

Cleaning up methane pollution makes economic and geopolitical sense, too. With Europe trying to get off Russian gas, President Biden has pledged to export a large amount of U.S.-produced liquified natural gas to the European Union by 2030. Capturing the methane currently being squandered could provide half the amount pledged to Europe just by eliminating waste.

For his part, Biden recognizes the need to reduce methane emissions: He was instrumental in kickstarting the Global Methane Pledge at the climate conference last year in Scotland.

The EPA is also considering new methane regulations on oil and gas companies. But these rules must be tightened to cover smaller wells, which produce just 6% of the nation’s oil and gas but generate fully half of all well site methane emissions.

Companies must be held accountable

While regulation can achieve low-cost and rapid emissions reductions, it won’t be a cure-all. One challenge is some major companies selling off oil and gas assets to less scrupulous firms with weaker emissions standards — a practice that has the effect of “reducing” emissions for big corporations, at least on paper.

Many of these wells will end up “orphaned” and unplugged, left to seep more methane into the atmosphere.

Corporations that sell off these polluting assets, and the companies that buy them, must be held accountable. The same goes for the major banks and investors financing these deals (many of whom pride themselves on net zero emissions pledges).

But to solve this problem, the oil and gas industry must be on board. It’s time the operators went beyond mere words to show, not tell, that they are taking action.

Tech will help lead us to methane solutions

Whether these firms sign up to voluntary measures or pledge to follow the letter of the law, we no longer have to take their word for it. Emerging technologies are enabling us to see what is really happening.

From drones and aircraft to a new generation of observational satellites, researchers and regulators alike are equipping themselves with the ability to see, in real time, where emissions are taking place and who is responsible.

In 2023, EDF’s new subsidiary MethaneSAT will launch its own satellite with the help of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Once in orbit, MethaneSAT will provide a steady stream of publicly available emissions data, in higher resolution than ever before. With the capacity to measure even diffuse methane plumes, we’ll be able to watch in real time whether these prime emitters are living up to their promises.

Companies are already letting us at EDF know that they regard this tech as a powerful motivator to tighten up operations. We’re approaching a new era of evidence-based accountability and transparency. And that’s exactly what is needed as, together, we face down the climate challenge.

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1 Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration: "U.S. natural gas residential consumption" and "Number of natural gas customers"; The World Bank, "Global gas flaring data"