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Global Methane Emissions are Surging — It’s Time to Act

July 28, 2020 Work Area: Methane

Global methane emissions have increased by 50 million metric tons since 2000 – a deeply alarming trend, as this additional methane will have similar climate implications over the coming decades as the CO₂ emissions from all US power plants, transportation, and residential and commercial heating combined. This is based on two new complementary studies that measured concentrations of methane in the atmosphere over the past two decades (Saunois et al and Jackson et al).  Emissions from fossil fuel production reportedly contributed more than 30 percent of the total. In other words, methane emissions from fossil fuels have increased by approximately 16 million metric tons in the past 20 years, even though proven and cost-effective mitigation solutions exist.

Fortunately, reining in methane from the oil and gas industry, the pollutant’s largest industrial source, is feasible and cheap. It can be accomplished through basic equipment maintenance, good operating practices for drilling, transport, and storage of oil and natural gas, and better compliance planning. According to the International Energy Agency, half of today’s methane emissions can be cut at no net cost, and three-quarters can be cut with existing technologies.  Indeed, we can see a host of opportunities to reduce this pollution in a number of countries across the globe.

In the U.S., where the Trump Administration has needlessly and recklessly sought to overturn some of the first methane rules adopted by any nation, a recent court ruling has reinstated the rules governing emissions on lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, which account for a substantial portion of US oil and gas production. Meanwhile, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards limiting methane pollution at more than 70,000 well sites remain in force today, and although the Trump Administration hopes to roll them back later this year, we believe that we will be able to fend off this deregulatory attack. Several US states are also moving forward with stronger regulations, which may serve as a model for better and broader federal rules under in the future.  Canada and Mexico have also finalized strong methane standards, and several other countries including Colombia, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire have begun to craft their own methane policies, too.

The European Union – the world’s largest oil and gas importer – is poised to act next. While the results of Saunois et al. indicate that only six percent of fossil fuel methane emissions come from Europe itself, we estimate that about half of world emissions come from countries that export gas to the EU.[1] Enacting robust standards on imported gas could cut the EU’s domestic methane footprint dramatically and also put pressure on its oil and gas suppliers – Russia, Norway, Algeria, Qatar, and others – to curb their emissions as well. By 2030, the standards for the EU, including for imports, could eliminate more than five million tons of methane annually, reducing near-term warming as much as replacing about 120 coal-fired power plants with carbon-free generation.

With temperatures soaring in the Arctic, more heat waves here in the US, sea levels rising rapidly and wildfires ablaze, it’s clear that the impacts of climate change are already here and accelerating. Immediate reductions in methane and other climate super pollutants are the “first aid” that can help us avoid near-term and irreversible impacts and reduce the rate of warming. Our message to countries and oil and gas producers around the world: commit to deep methane reductions today. There’s no time for delay and Clean Air Task Force and our global team of partners are ready to help every step of the way.

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