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White House updates methane initiatives aimed at wells, mines, dairy farms

01 February 2022 Kevin Adler

Continuing his focus on climate policy, US President Joe Biden announced the formation of a multi-agency methane working group and funding to reduce methane emissions and monitor progress.

The announcement on 31 January builds on the Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan unveiled in November to coincide with US participation at the COP26 international climate meeting in Glasgow, Scotland.

It also reflects the priority the US' leadership is placing on the Global Methane Pledge, which the US and EU launched in September. To date, more than 110 countries have pledged to collectively reduce methane emissions by 30% compared with 2020 levels by 2030. The signatories cover nearly half of all methane emissions and 70% of global GDP.

The newly created Greenhouse Gas Monitoring & Measurement Interagency Working Group "will help identify and deploy the best available tools and data systems to measure, monitor, report, and verify carbon dioxide, methane, and other GHG emissions and removals," the White House said in a statement on 31 January.

On the same day, the Department of the Interior announced $1.15 billion is available for states to clean up orphaned oil and natural gas wells, a significant source of methane emissions. This is front-loading the $4.7 billion available for dealing with orphan wells over the next 10 years under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that Biden signed in November.

"Many of these orphaned wells are located in rural communities, environmental justice communities, and communities of color that have suffered from years of divestment," the White House said.

This is on top of the $8.6 million that Biden is seeking in the federal government's fiscal year 2022 budget request for Interior's Bureau of Land Management to plug orphan wells. The US Congress has yet to approve Biden's budget request and is continuing to fund the federal government at fiscal year 2021 levels.

Two weeks ago, Interior signed a memorandum of understanding with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the departments of agriculture and energy, and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission to coordinate well cleanups. "I have seen firsthand how the orphaned oil and gas wells left behind by extractive industries lead to hazardous pollution, water contamination, and safety hazards for our communities," Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said on 18 January.

EPA estimates the US has at least 2 million inactive, unplugged wells, which potentially are leaking methane and other GHGs. According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), these are leaking 281,000 metric tons (mt)/year of methane, or more than 7 million mt of CO2-equivalent. Total US GHG emissions in 2018 were 6,558 million mt of CO2-equivalent.

EDF has mapped the 81,000 orphan wells that it says should be prioritized for cleanup, based on their proximity to homes, possible leakage rates, and potential for job creation.

Additional methane programs

The infrastructure bill also expanded other programs to reduce methane emissions, which the White House said are underway:

  • The Department of Energy (DOE) has a $30-million Methane Reduction Infrastructure Initiative, which will provide grants to states and tribal nations, as well as "assist [them] in identifying, characterizing, and mitigating the environmental risks of undocumented orphaned wells." DOE will kick off this effort this spring (date not announced) with a workshop on advanced remediation and methane detection technologies, tools and methods, and best practices.
  • The Department of Transportation will spend $1 billion on gas pipeline modernization, primarily through state grants.
  • The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Agency last year launched the first-ever regulation to reduce emissions from gas gathering lines, and it increased gas pipeline enforcement activities.
  • The Department of Agriculture (USDA) is "developing science-based models and tools that are helping industry partners assess and track progress toward net-zero emissions from the US dairy sector."
  • USDA's Rural Development department has supported over $200 million in anaerobic digester projects for the dairy industry over the past year. EPA says that the US dairy industry contributes about 212 million mt of CO2-e annually, or 3.4% of the US inventory.
  • The Interagency Work Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization will hold a national workshop on reducing methane emissions from legacy fossil fuel infrastructure, including mines and oil and gas wells.
  • DOE awarded $8.4 million to four projects designed to establish new geothermal energy and heat production from orphaned oil and gas wells on 12 January.

Posted 01 February 2022 by Kevin Adler, Chief Editor

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