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US and EU lead global pledge to cut methane pollution at COP26

Nearly 90 countries are promising big cuts in a major greenhouse gas. The U.S. EPA is aiming new methane rules at the oil and gas sector.
By Jeff St. John

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President Joe Biden speaks at the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. (Steve Reigate/AFP/Getty Images)

The COP26 climate conference in Glasgow has yielded a new key step toward cutting greenhouse gas emissions — not carbon dioxide, but methane. 

On Tuesday, the European Union and the United States officially unveiled the Global Methane Pledge, which calls on signatories to slash methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030 compared to 2020 levels.

So far nearly 90 countries have signed on, accounting for roughly half the world’s methane emissions. Signatories include 15 of the world’s 30 top methane emitters including the U.S., the EU, Indonesia, Pakistan, Argentina, Mexico, Nigeria, Iraq, Canada and Brazil — although major emitters including China, Russia and India have not signed on.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with about 80 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide in its first two decades in the earth’s atmosphere. But it remains in the atmosphere for only about a decade compared to more than a century for carbon dioxide.

That makes methane the lowest-hanging fruit” for emissions cuts that could keep the world within 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise over the coming century, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a Tuesday event in Glasgow. 

An August report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that methane emissions from fossil fuel industries, agriculture and waste are responsible for roughly one-quarter of temperature increases over the past decade, compared to about 40 percent for carbon dioxide.

Readily available, cost-effective measures to reduce methane emissions could avoid up to 0.3 degrees Celsius of warming by 2050, according to the pledge. 

This is going to make a huge difference,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in Tuesday remarks in Glasgow, adding that countries can probably go beyond” the 30 percent cuts called for in the agreement.

The challenge is in how to design and enforce mitigation strategies that can tackle not only methane emissions from fossil fuel industries, which make up roughly one-quarter of the world’s total emissions, but also the roughly 40 percent from agriculture and livestock and the roughly 12 percent from landfills and other organic waste sites, which are more dispersed.

How the U.S. will cut methane pollution

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took a step toward cutting methane emissions from the oil and gas sector on Tuesday, unveiling the first proposed set of comprehensive rules for preventing leaks and releases of methane, which is the main component of natural gas, from wells, pipelines, compression stations and other infrastructure.

The long-awaited regulations will extend EPA’s authority to all existing oil and gas infrastructure, in contrast to an Obama-era rule that applied only to infrastructure built after 2015. The new rules would require operators to replace pneumatic controllers that are believed to be the second-largest source of emissions from the industry. They would also require quarterly screening of new and existing well sites and compressor stations to discover and fix fugitive emissions” that are missed by existing detection methods.

The proposed rules, which are now open for public review and comment in advance of an expected implementation in late 2022, also call for oil and gas operators to use advanced technologies that can find major leaks more rapidly and at lower cost than ever before,” such as the airplane- and satellite-based detection technologies that have revealed far greater amounts of methane leaking from oil and gas infrastructure than current EPA detection and measurement methods account for.

Given the challenges in curbing methane emissions from the agriculture and waste sectors, cutting emissions from the oil and gas sector offers the fastest, most cost-effective way to slow global warming today,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit group that has led research into fossil-fuel-sector methane emissions over the past decade, in a Tuesday statement.

The EPA estimates the new rules will reduce methane emissions by approximately 41 million tons through 2035, the equivalent of 920 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. They will also curb air pollution that directly threatens human health by avoiding about 12 million tons of smog-forming pollutants and 480,000 tons of toxic air pollutants like benzene through 2035. And the rules will save nearly $700 million worth of natural gas that would otherwise be lost to leaks through 2030.

U.S. oil and gas industry groups have begun shifting from staunch opposition to at least voicing potential openness to EPA’s proposed rules, while at the same time opposing proposals in Congress to impose fees on methane emissions.

We support the direct regulation of methane from new and existing sources and are committed to building on the progress we have achieved in reducing methane emissions,” said Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president for policy, economics and regulatory affairs for the American Petroleum Institute trade group, in a Tuesday statement. He said the group looks forward to reviewing EPA’s proposal in greater depth.

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.