Methane emissions reduction drive ratchets up another gear
Efforts to cut global emissions of methane took another step forward 11 October as 24 more countries joined a US and EU-led drive to reduce emissions of the GHG by at least 30% by 2030.
Further advances are expected in the days before the COP26 climate change meeting from the prime mover behind the drive, the US, with proposed rewrites to rules for new and existing sources of methane from the oil and natural gas sector set to be unveiled.
Methane—the primary component of natural gas—is about 86 times more powerful than CO2 in holding heat in the atmosphere over a 20-year timeframe, which means cutting methane emissions can have a significant impact on slowing global warming.
As a result, an engaged Biden administration is attempting to chivvy along other nations to redouble their efforts to cut methane emissions, while undoing the Trump administration's weakening of methane regulations at home.
A total of 24 countries said 11 October they would join the Global Methane Pledge launched by the US and EU on 17 September. The US Department of State said that as a result, nine of the top 20 methane emitters were now signed up to the reduction program, representing about 30% of global methane emissions and 60% of the global economy.
Initial commitments in September were made by Argentina, Ghana, Indonesia, Iraq, Italy, Mexico, and the UK. On 11 October, they were joined by Canada, Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Costa Rica, Cote d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Federated States of Micronesia, France, Germany, Guatemala, Guinea, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kyrgyz Republic, Liberia, Malta, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Rwanda, Sweden, and Togo.
The Department of State said more countries might swell those numbers prior to COP26 in Glasgow in November.
US methane actions
In the US, meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is rewriting separate rules to limit and cap methane releases from extracting, processing, distributing, and transporting oil and gas products from new plus existing operations. An administration official said 12 October the proposed rules were currently undergoing interagency review.
The proposals, likely to be released in the coming weeks, would potentially impose much more stringent limits than the current requirements, relying on advancements in methane emissions detection and measurement technologies, law firm Vinson & Elkins said 27 September. A final rule is likely to be released in October 2022, they said.
An August report by environmental group Earthworks illustrated how new techniques could help ramp up detection. In the report published 19 August, Earthworks compared real-world flaring detected by Environmental Defense Fund's (EDF) helicopter technology with records kept by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC), which regulates oil and gas exploration and transport in the state. Of 227 flares directly observed by helicopter with optical gas imaging cameras, EDF found that 69-84% of the flares did not have required flaring permits, known as Rule 32 exceptions. The 84% represents the findings of Earthworks and EDF; the 69% represents the low end of the range, based on RRC's identification of some flares as permitted after being shown the preliminary findings.
Texas is the largest oil-producing state in the US and the second-largest gas producer. According to IHS Markit, Texas averaged about 4.7 million barrels per day of production over the last 12 months, more than double any other producing area, including the offshore Gulf Coast. Its gas production was nearly 22 billion cubic feet/day for the last 12 months, behind only the Marcellus-Utica basins in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.
The proposed rules are the result of President Joe Biden issuing an Executive Order instructing EPA to consider "suspending, revising, or rescinding" a Trump-era rule. In June, Biden signed a resolution to use the Congressional Review Act to rescind the Trump-era rule that in effect, rescinded Obama-era standards for the oil and gas industry while they were held up in litigation.
International Energy Agency's Birol weighs in
Biden and his team aren't fighting the battle alone though. International Energy Agency (IEA) Executive Director Fatih Birol will be at his side in the line.
Writing in a Financial Times op-ed column 11 October, Birol said governments seeking to step up action at the COP26 need to make slashing methane emissions a central part of their plans, alongside decarbonization.
The energy industry, wrote Birol, has the means quickly to stop a vast amount of these emissions, which could make a significant difference to the speed at which the earth's atmosphere heats up. As a result, policymakers need to apply more pressure so fossil fuel companies "clean up their act," he said.
"Methane emissions are often easily avoidable. Most are the result of a combination of misaligned business incentives, lack of information, and poorly run operations at fossil fuel-producing companies," he added.
Birol's call to arms came less than a week after the energy watchdog he heads laid out a roadmap for limiting methane's pollution of the air and contribution to global warming on the path to net-zero emissions by 2050. The IEA's May roadmap to net-zero emissions in 2050 envisions a 75% reduction in methane emissions from fossil fuel operations.
Methane has contributed to around 30% of the global rise in temperatures to date, and curbing these emissions is the most effective means available for limiting global warming in the near term, the IEA warned in its latest roadmap.
The agency estimates more than 70% of the oil and gas sector's existing methane emissions can be halted with existing technology, and about 45% could be avoided at no net cost. A UN Environment Programme-sponsored study came to similar conclusions on the impact of existing technology.
If all countries that have already committed to reducing methane emissions were to adopt a set of what it called "well established policy tools," the IEA estimates methane emissions from global fossil fuel operations could be cut by nearly 15%. The tools include leak detection and repair requirements, technology standards, and bans on non-emergency flaring and venting.
In addition, if committed countries were to leverage their buying power, they could reduce the emissions associated with their imports of oil and gas, leading to a further reduction of more than 10%, according to the roadmap.
On top of that, if the growing number of oil and gas companies actively working to reduce methane emissions from their own operations can quickly address emissions across their own operations and help spread best practices across the industry, a further reduction in global emissions of almost 10% would be possible, it added.
In the coal sector, if global consumption was halved (as called for by the IEA in the May roadmap to net zero), total worldwide methane emissions would decline by more than 10%. A further 5% of emissions could be avoided in the near term if mine operators took steps to utilize more of their methane and to limit emissions from their abandoned sites, it added.
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