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Can You “Reduce Methane Emissions” with an “All of the Above” Strategy?


The short answer: no.

On March 28th the White House released a 15-page document entitled, “Climate Action Plan – Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions.” Here’s the first paragraph:

 

“Reducing methane emissions is a powerful way to take action on climate change [true]; and putting methane to use can support local economies with a source of clean energy [false; it’s not clean] that generates revenue, spurs investment, improves safety and leads to cleaner air [“cleaner” but not “clean”]. President Obama directed the Administration to develop a comprehensive interagency strategy to cut methane emissions.”

 

It’s a good thing that there is some public attention being given to this issue because of this White House initiative. I’m sure there will be some positive effects from some aspects of the overall plan that is being put forward. But there’s a major conflict built into this initiative given President Obama’s year-after-year, full-throated support for shale gas drilling/fracking and continued touting of methane gas as a “bridge fuel” to the day, decades ahead apparently, when truly clean and safe renewable energy is, finally, “ready for prime time.”

You can see that conflict in the document. One of the biggest is the figure used in the document as far as methane’s climate change impact compared to CO2, the primary greenhouse gas. The document says, “Every ton of methane in the atmosphere has a global warming effect that is more than 20 times greater than a ton of carbon dioxide.” Very wrong and out of date. The latest figure used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is that methane is 34 times more powerful than CO2 over a 100 year period and 86 times more powerful over a 20 year period.

Given that the world has less than 20 years, really a lot less, to dramatically decrease its use of earth-heating fossil fuels and shift to renewable sources or we’re essentially cooked, the 20 year figure is without question the one that counts. And since 86 is four times higher than “more than 20,” that means that methane’s impact is much, much greater.

From the document: “methane accounts for nearly 9 percent of domestic greenhouse gas emissions.” This 9% figure comes from using the 20 times figure to calculate methane’s impact compared to CO2. If you quadruple it to use the more accurate and relevant 20 year figure, that translates to methane emissions being responsible for roughly 1/3 of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, a huge difference.

That’s one problem. Another is a very clear bias in the document in favor of “voluntary” efforts as far as the gas industry and other entities responsible for methane emissions. In every single one of the four areas put forward on page 2 as the sources from which methane is emitted—Landfills, Coal Mines, Agriculture and Oil and Gas–“voluntary” programs are listed as among the approaches to be used. Indeed, on page 4 a key sentence, referring to the document’s explanation of these methane reduction efforts, reads as follows: “It highlights new Administration actions to encourage voluntary emissions reductions and to set new standards where appropriate.”

Landfills: Two approaches: 1) EPA to propose “updated standards to reduce methane from new landfills and take public comment on whether to update standards for existing landfills,” and 2) “voluntary programs—partnering with industry, state and local leaders…putting methane waste to use powering their communities.”

Coal Mines: Two approaches: 1) Interior Department will “gather public input” to deal with “waste mine methane on lands leased by the Federal government” [not all mines], and 2) EPA “will continue to partner with industry through its voluntary programs” to reduce various barriers to “beneficial methane recovery and use at coal mines.”

Agriculture: Two approaches, both voluntary: USDA and DOE to outline “voluntary strategies to accelerate adoption of methane digesters” and other technologies “to reduce US dairy sector greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020; and “support biodigester technology deployment by providing financial and technical assistance through voluntary programs.”

Oil and Gas: The document says that it will “build on the success of voluntary programs and targeted regulation in reducing emissions from the oil and gas sector.” [What successes are they?] “Key steps” projected: 1) EPA will assess the situation and determine by the fall of 2014 “how best to pursue further methane reductions” from the oil and gas industry. “If EPA decides to develop additional regulations” [!!!!!] “it will complete those regulations by the end of 2016. And “through the Natural Gas STAR program, EPA will work with the industry to expand voluntary efforts to reduce methane emissions;” 2) The Bureau of Land Management “will propose updated standards to reduce venting and flaring from oil and gas production on public lands” [only on public lands]; and, 3) “the Administration will identify ‘downstream’ methane reduction opportunities.”

There’s a reference to the US continuing to work with the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and Global Methane Initiative.

Finally, the document projects several ways to better measure and collect data on “methane sources and trends [a good thing] (to) enable more effective management of opportunities to reduce methane emissions.”

Not Even a Call for Regulation

This is a very weak set of plans. You couldn’t even describe it as a plan to regulate methane emissions given the repeated emphasis on voluntary programs and, when it comes to possible regulation of the oil and gas industry, an explicit statement that the EPA may or may not decide that additional regulations are needed. 

This is truly an example of the Obama Administration’s incrementalist approach to the climate crisis despite its occasional rhetoric about the urgency of our situation. 

It’s how you go about dealing with methane if you’re committed not to “renewables first” but “all of the above.”

This plan poses no obstacle to the gas industry’s plans to export fracked methane gas overseas where the big profits are to be made, even as methane gas prices will rise in the US for manufacturers, consumers, farmers—i.e., pretty much everyone else. This export plan, if not slowed or derailed, will dramatically accelerate shale gas drilling and increase methane emissions from the production, venting, storage, transportation and eventual burning of methane gas. So, a decade or so from now, instead of methane accounting for 1/3 of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, maybe it’ll be closer to half. And we will have built a whole new complex of new pipelines, compressor stations, export terminals—like at Cove Point, Md.–and other infrastructure that will make it very difficult to make the needed shift to renewables, conservation and efficiency.

That’s a big thing: that a methane gas export boom will displace wind and solar and other renewables development, just at a time when the prices for wind and solar have come down dramatically, and they are far and away the most rapidly growing sector of the world’s and the U.S. energy system.

Fortunately, the climate and no-fracking movements are active, growing and on the move. Building them and making connections with the rising, multi-issue, broader people-and-planet-first movement, is the best plan available for doing the job. Let’s keep doing it!

Ted Glick is the National Campaign Coordinator of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. Past writings and other information can be found at http://tedglick.com, and he can be followed on twitter at http://twitter.com/jtglick.

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