President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced yesterday that the United States and Canada would partner to cut methane emissions from their oil and gas sectors by 40-45 percent below 2012 levels in under a decade. This is great news, and we applaud this cooperative effort. Methane is a potent heat-trapping gas, so cutting methane emissions provides a really big bang for the buck. But recent science suggests that we don’t have a great handle on how large methane emissions really are, so we are going to need strong science to back up this commitment.
Methane is a big deal, and a bigger deal than we thought
Some of our recent work on transportation fuels and energy highlights the importance of methane emissions along our fuel and energy supply chains. Most of the global warming pollution coming out of a car’s tailpipe is carbon dioxide, but in oil fields methane is a much bigger part of the story.
A recent study by researchers at Harvard University found that U.S. methane emissions alone have increased by 30% between 2002 and 2014. This result is troubling for a number of reasons, particularly because it contradicts the official estimates. Even as domestic oil production increased by 20% and hydraulic fracturing of shale increased by ninefold, EPA methane inventories—inventories used for developing methane regulations—did not indicate any significant increase in anthropogenic methane emissions over the same period. Just like savers need to track their spending and dieters need to track their calories, we can’t effectively cut methane emissions until we have a good understanding of how high those emissions are and where they come from.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy acknowledged just last month that methane emissions from the oil and gas sector are substantially higher than official EPA estimates. It’s critical that the best science inform policy. And the methane rules EPA is working on are an opportunity to bring EPA analysis up to date with the latest evidence.
Getting it right: science, technology, transparency and regulation
The Obama administration has been working to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. In fact, both the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and EPA have initiated processes to implement new rules regulating emissions from oil and gas operations. But EPA’s current proposals, which only apply to new and modified oil and gas operations, fell short by not regulating all existing oil and gas operations. We have been urging the Obama Administration to extend these regulations to all sources, and we are pleased that they have committed to do so.
EPA should establish a framework to accurately account for all of the sources of methane up and down the supply chain based on up-to-date assessments of how large those emissions are. We know that the amount of atmospheric methane has been increasing over the past decade, but more work is required to understand the specific sources of these emissions. In light of the evolving science, regulations must be updated regularly based on new data and changing science.
EPA should redouble its efforts to resolve discrepancies between its methane inventories and actual measured methane concentrations through a combination of new scientific studies, greater industry transparency, and strict record-keeping and reporting requirements—all of which must be incorporated into a comprehensive regulatory framework for oil and gas sector climate emissions.
The US oil and gas industry is changing rapidly, and we need to make sure our climate watchdogs keep up with these changes. The US/Canada agreement can be a game-changer. We will be tracking the science and the regulations to make sure they get it right.