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25 years of impact

Building the movement: CATF’s leadership to reduce super pollutants

March 31, 2022 Work Area: Methane

In 1996, we founded Clean Air Task Force and set to work on a singular goal: controlling pollution from U.S. coal-fired power plants. With a small and nimble team, our Power Plant Pollution Campaign helped secure regulations to substantially reduce power plant emissions of smog, soot, and air toxics. The rules we championed played a role in the retirement of a third of U.S. power plants. 

Nearly five years later, bolstered by that success and informed by cutting edge scientific research and analysis by James Hansen and others, we set our sights on another target: super pollutants. We learned that the emission of super pollutants like methane and black carbon had an outsized impact on global warming, and that — due to their short lifespan in the atmosphere — reducing them could quickly reduce warming and help keep the planet from passing irreversible climate tipping points such as the melting of the permafrost and the dieback of the Amazon rainforest. We also noticed something else: almost nobody was talking about super pollutants, let alone doing much of anything about controlling them.  

In 2000, we became one of the first environmental organizations to sound the alarm on methane and black carbon pollution. With CATF still in its early years, we worked to plant the seeds around these super pollutants with regulators, lawmakers, and industry leaders — highlighting the danger of methane and black carbon emissions from oil and gas, as well as black carbon and other emissions from marine shipping and diesel vehicles. We began to socialize the importance of reducing these emissions, building alliances, and establishing a base level of understanding across key stakeholder groups.  

We also set our sights on reducing emissions from the transportation sector. In 2007, we commissioned a technical study which found that air pollution from trans-oceanic shipping was responsible for an estimated 60,000 premature deaths per year. A year later, a follow-up analysis projected that tighter emission controls on the three key pollutants would save more than 30,000 lives by 2030. With those findings in hand, we co-founded the Clean Shipping Coalition, mobilizing a cadre of clean air advocates to reduce the shipping sector’s reliance on heavy fuel oil and working to reduce its emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and black carbon. Our work helped enact the first-ever emission standards on ocean-going ships at the International Maritime Organization. Domestically, our eight-year U.S. Diesel Clean-Up Campaign secured many state and federal initiatives, including emission limits and more than $2 billion in funding that is still substantially reducing U.S. diesel emissions today. 

Legal breakthroughs create the opening for methane regulations 

Little by little, we found our openings. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA that greenhouse gases are “air pollutants” under the Clean Air Act. Then in 2009, with engagement from CATF, EPA issued its Endangerment Finding — declaring as a legal and a scientific matter that greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane endanger public health and welfare. 

Recognizing a significant opportunity to secure methane controls that could set a standard around the world, CATF sprang into action. We built out a team of atmospheric scientists, lawyers, and advocates to launch a campaign to regulate methane emissions from the oil and gas sector under the Clean Air Act. Over time, we brought a host of powerful organizations onto our side — helping to found the global Climate & Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) in 2012 and the U.S. Methane Partners Campaign two years later. 

Progress in Washington, the states, and abroad 

From 2013 to 2016, we worked to engage the Obama administration around methane emissions — pushing for EPA to finish the job and officially regulate methane emissions from the U.S. oil and gas sector, and engaging with the Bureau of Land Management on the methane waste prevention rule. In 2013, we launched complementary efforts in U.S. states, helping secure the first U.S. methane regulations on oil and gas in Colorado, which paved the path for similar rules in California and Pennsylvania. These state-level regulations demonstrated that oil and gas producing states could control methane emissions without damaging the state’s economy, all while providing a technical blueprint for federal rules.  

With progress to rein in methane emissions advancing at the state level, the stage was set in 2016 for the U.S. federal government to finally regulate methane emissions. In the last year of his second term, President Obama and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy put in place the first ever federal mandate to reduce methane emissions from new and modified oil and gas wells. The rule represented tremendous progress and a hard-fought win for our team. 

Also in 2016, we began to expand our horizons — capitalizing on our expertise developed in the U.S. — with new programs launched in  Canada and Mexico to help their national governments better understand and ultimately reduce methane emissions through strong policies, which were finalized in 2018. We built alliances with groups on the ground and developed tools to help other countries make progress, such as the Country Methane Abatement Tool (CoMAT), which helps countries and companies quantify their methane emissions and institute a plan for reducing them.  

Defending and pivoting during the Trump years 

CATF was forced into a defensive position on methane following the 2016 election and worked relentlessly to protect the Clean Air Act (and its associated methane regulations on landfills and the oil and gas industry) during the Trump presidency. We defended the Clean Air Act at every turn, highlighted the importance of reducing methane emissions, and pushed back against regulatory rollbacks. We even helped block a resolution to repeal the Obama-era rule to restrict methane emissions from drilling on public lands under the Congressional Review Act. Ultimately, however, President Trump did weaken and undermine the Obama-era EPA and BLM oil and gas methane rules. During this time, we also intensified our work to secure regulations in key U.S. states like New Mexico and expanded our international methane work — with new partnerships with governments in Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina, and Nigeria. 

Putting methane on the EU map 

In 2019, our experience and expertise leading methane advocacy in the U.S. and abroad gave us a foot in the door as we expanded our advocacy efforts into the European Union. As we built our team in Brussels, we began engaging lawmakers on the need to regulate methane emissions. In 2020, we also launched a campaign to document and publicize methane emissions at oil and gas sites throughout Europe using a special optical gas imaging (OGI) camera, which allows us to make visible methane pollution that is invisible to the naked eye. Over the course of one year, CATF documented 250 methane leaks or vents in 11 European countries — sharing our findings with partners and with top tier media and compiling the findings in a first-of-its-kind report. We put methane on the map in Europe applying significant pressure to EU policymakers from the outside while engaging them through direct advocacy from the inside — ultimately helping to secure the first-ever EU proposal to cut methane emissions from its energy sector.  

2021: A landmark year for action to reduce methane emissions 

2021 brought with it a new U.S. administration and new opportunities for CATF to secure methane regulations. We launched a multi-pronged approach to advocacy for action at the federal level, engaging the Biden administration not only to re-instate the Obama-era rules, but to go one step further by regulating methane emissions from all new and existing oil and gas sites. We published analysis that charted a pathway for the U.S. to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 65% using existing technologies, helped lead a coalition of advocates applying public pressure, and provided expert testimony before EPA. Our work contributed to the 2021 restoration of the 2016 methane standards under the Congressional Review Act, and we continue to push for a stronger, more comprehensive federal methane rule. 

That same year, with CATF’s Super Pollutants Program Director Sarah Smith newly elected to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition Board of Directors, we also engaged directly with the U.S. State Department around the importance of raising ambitions to reduce methane emissions on a global scale — helping support the conception and ultimate execution of the groundbreaking Global Methane Pledge

Our work on the Global Methane Pledge was multi-faceted. First, we convened international NGO partners and worked together to put methane high on the agenda of the U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry — advocating for the U.S. to push for increased ambition to cut methane not only at home, but around the world. But we didn’t just approach the issue from one side of the Atlantic. We engaged the European Commission at the same time, doing our part to support the Global Methane Pledge as it took shape. Finally, in the lead-up to COP26 in Glasgow, we worked to build support for the Pledge with the United Kingdom COP Presidency and with various other countries around the world. 

With support from CATF staff in the U.S., the EU, and the UK, President Biden and President Ursula von der Leyen formally launched the Global Methane Pledge at COP26 — committing, alongside more than 100 countries, to collectively reduce their methane emissions 30% by 2030. It was the biggest collective display of climate ambition since the Paris Agreement, and a breakthrough moment for the methane movement. CATF and its coalition partners also hosted the first-ever COP pavilion devoted solely to methane. We showcased the work of scientists, elected officials, government administrators, advocates, and journalists from around the world on the year’s largest climate stage to increase understanding and spur action.  

A larger, stronger CATF tackles methane around the world 

While the Global Methane Pledge was a seminal moment for global climate advocacy and for Clean Air Task Force, it was by no means the finish line. In fact, it was just the start: as the planet inches closer to climate tipping points, we must ensure every country participates in the Global Methane Pledge, and we must make sure that the governments that have already signed it turn their ambition into action immediately. We’ve helped enable progress on this front with recent leadership from Colombia and Nigeria, and will continue to press for more nations to move to cut methane.  

The imperative of tackling super pollutants, particularly methane, has now been adopted by leading global bodies of climate scientists and energy experts, and has been documented in reports by the International Energy Agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and in the Global Methane Assessment. As those studies make clear, cutting methane emissions is critical to combatting climate change, and it is the best opportunity we have to reduce the amount of warming we’ll experience in the next 20 years. It’s also critical. If we fail to do so, our global goal of keeping warming to manageable levels will be virtually unachievable. 

Armed with that knowledge and empowered by our successes, CATF has expanded our team of experts working to tackle super pollutants to nearly 20 people, positioned strategically around the world with expertise across not only oil and gas methane, but coal mine methane, landfill waste methane, and methane from the agriculture sector. We are working to reduce methane emissions in more than 20 countries on five continents, with plans for further expansion.  

In the coming years, we’ll continue our work to drive global action to reduce methane emissions via public policy and through markets at the regional, national, and subnational levels. We’ll develop cross-cutting capacity to accelerate action to reduce methane, including securing funding to help developing countries achieve their emissions reduction goals. Finally, we’ll work to strengthen multilateral commitments on methane, such as the Global Methane Pledge, to help spur the deep emissions reductions we’ll need to slow the rate of warming and help stave off the worst impacts. 

As CATF works to advance climate solutions on all fronts, addressing emissions of methane and other super pollutants is foundational to our efforts and core to our DNA. We’ve been at it for nearly 20 years, and our strategic, comprehensive approach has positioned us for major breakthroughs in the years to come. 

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