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US cracks down on methane pollution

Ajit Niranjan
November 29, 2022

The US has put forward draft rules that would cut emissions of natural gas. It's part of a broader global push to limit the powerful planet-heating gas. But experts say it still may not be enough.

Gas flaring at a Total oil platform in Nigeria
Nigeria will restrict practices like flaring, where companies release methane gas by burning it offImage: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP

The proposed rules, which come less than two weeks after closure of the latest round of global climate negotiations, would limit methane leaks from oil and gas drilling on public land.

Under the regulations, which would apply to the almost 10% of public land where drilling takes place, companies would be bound by monthly caps on flaring, as well as being required to detect leaks of the potent greenhouse gas.

Government officials said the proposal, announced Monday, would stop billions of cubic feet of natural gas from being wasted through venting, flaring and leaks.

The announcement follows a more comprehensive methane-reduction plan laid out by President Joe Biden at the COP27 climate conference earlier this month.

Cutting methane emissions is a "climate game changer," Biden said as he presented a $20 billion (€19.3 billion) national methane reduction plan at the talks in Egypt.

As part of that plan, the US will cut methane emissions to 87% below 2005 levels by the end of the decade, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The cornerstones of its plan are forcing companies to identify leaks with satellites, capping abandoned wells and improving industrial equipment.

"If the proposal is implemented as-is, we can expect significant methane emissions reduction from the oil and gas sector," said Arvind Ravikumar, a scientist studying sustainable energy transitions at the University of Texas in Austin.

An oil rig in Denmark
Methane is emitted by extraction of oil and gasImage: picture alliance / Scanpix Denmark

A slew of pledges

Several other countries that draw fossil fuels out of the ground, spewing vast amounts of methane gas in the process, used the climate talks in Egypt to promise new laws to cheaply rein in their pollution.

Canada will force oil companies to find and fix leaks every month. Nigeria will restrict practices like venting, where companies release methane gas into the air, and flaring, where they burn it off.

Seven of the biggest fossil fuel importers and exporters — the US, EU, UK, Canada, Singapore, Norway and Japan — announced this month plans to take "immediate action" to stop methane belching out of coal, oil and gas facilities.

"It's basically plumbing," quipped US climate envoy John Kerry at the summit, asking every country to come to COP28 with national methane action plans.

Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua surprised a meeting of ministers trying to cut methane emissions at the climate conference in Egypt by announcing a national action plan for the world's biggest methane polluter. The document has been finalized but not yet approved, he said.

Oil rigs at sunset in Kazakhstan
Countries like Kazakhstan and Russia emit vast amounts of methane when extracting oil and gasImage: robertharding/IMAGO

Methane does not last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, but has at least 80 times greater a planet-heating effect over 20 years.

Risk of missing climate targets

Taken together, the announcements at COP27 represent some of the most concrete efforts to stop a powerful but overlooked gas from baking the Earth. But they fall short of what world leaders would need to do to honor their promise to try to limit planetary heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.

Cutting methane pollution 45% this decade would avoid 0.3 degrees Celsius of global warming by the 2040s and could be done with technologies that are already cheap and mature, according to a 2021 report published by the United Nations Environment Program.

At the 2021 climate summit in Glasgow, the US and EU led a push to cut methane emissions 30% by 2030 — less than the UN recommendation — with a pledge that has since been signed by more than 140 countries.

Broader economic measures — such as building out clean energy capacity and reducing the use of gas to make electricity or heat buildings — would be needed to make up the difference, said Maria Pastukhova, an energy analyst at the climate think tank E3G. "Otherwise, there is a risk of not meeting the 1.5 C goal."

A thermostat being replaced by a smartmeter
Turning a thermostat down 1 degree Celsius can cut gas demand by 7%, according to the International Energy AgencyImage: Jochen Tack/picture alliance

Some of the world's biggest methane polluters, including Russia and China, have not signed the pledge. While Russia has been isolated internationally since it invaded Ukraine, China stopped short of joining the pledge.

But Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua said this month that China has finished its draft national strategy to strictly control methane emissions from energy, agriculture and waste.

"We don't know how ambitious this plan will turn out to be, but it provides a clear signal that China is moving to align its climate and energy policies with the 1.5 C goal," said Pastukhova.

Cheap solution to stop extreme weather getting worse

Tackling methane is no replacement for cutting carbon dioxide pollution. But it is one of the most powerful short-term tools to keep heat waves from growing hotter and tropical cyclones from growing stronger.

When companies extract and move fossil fuels without proper safeguards, they pump methane into the air. This happens at every stage of the supply chain — right down to kitchens. A study published in January found methane leaking out of gas stoves in the US each year is heating the planet by as much as half a million cars.

A person lighting a gas stove in Bavaria, Germany
Gas stoves release methane into the air, along with other pollutants that hurt people's lungsImage: Action Pictures/IMAGO

However, the invisible clouds of methane billowing out of fossil fuel facilities are among the cheapest fixes. By banning practices like routine venting and flaring, and finding and fixing leaks, companies can reduce the amount of gas that goes to waste and save money in the process.

Nigeria has also promised to boost efforts to tackle flaring and launched a tracker to monitor it. When oil companies try to burn excess methane, often inefficiently, they waste gas that could be used elsewhere. The share of gas that escapes unburned heats the planet more than it would if it were used as fuel.

"Flaring gas is actually like squandering your resources," said Olushola Adesida, director of Nigeria's National Oil Spill and Detection Response Agency.

Experts say countries are making progress on cutting methane emissions. The announcement by China means action plans now cover about two-thirds of humanity's methane emissions.

"This is a massive development from a country that accounts for 16% of global emissions," said Marcelo Mena Carrasco, CEO of the philanthropic fund Global Methane Hub and former environment minister of Chile. The Global Methane Hub says it has partnered with eight nonprofit organizations to support the plan.

"We are ready to help turn this promise into reality," he said.

This article was updated on November 29 to reflect the proposed rules for drilling on US public land.

Edited by: Tamsin Walker

Ajit Niranjan Climate reporter@NiranjanAjit