Getting to the Sweet Spot in Curbing Methane and CO2

Getting to the Sweet Spot in Curbing Methane and CO2
(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)
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Emissions of carbon dioxide, or CO2are usually the focus of debate about the causes of climate change. It is equally essential to understand methane’s (CH4) role and to refine public policy remedies accordingly.

Methane emissions are the subject of the just-announced  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulatory changes.  These changes will become effective sixty days after they are published in the Federal Register. EPA aims to reduce regulatory duplication and redundant paperwork while providing more clarity for affected businesses.

Such policy changes immediately feed the politically charged debate on climate change, in this critical election year. Discussion is vital, but the heated rhetoric detracts attention from the complex science and market dynamics at play in our hybrid energy economy where renewable, and carbon-based sources exist together, providing America’s power generation capacity.

We must get methane regulation right. Methane produced from fossil fuel development, transportation, manufacturing, and especially agriculture represents part of the greenhouse gases produced from human activity. Methane, however, has an outsized impact on the Earth’s atmosphere. Methane is responsible for much of the heat-trapping greenhouse gases associated with rising temperatures as well as unhealthy air quality. Methane breaks down faster than CO2, but it can have an acute and undesirable impact while it lingers in the biosphere. Figuring out the best way of containing it is a significant public policy challenge.

Most of the methane occurs naturally, from landfills, disintegrating biomass, and livestock, especially cattle farming. As satellite images reveal, it is easier to identify significant methane releases from discreet oil and gas production sites than diffuse sources of methane such as the disintegration of organic matter, and oil and gas use itself. Energy production, therefore, is a more tangible target for regulators. 

U.S. regulation of emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) associated with natural gas and oil production have held down methane emissions. The Obama Administration acknowledged this point in promulgating new VOC rules in 2012.  At issue now is whether regulations adopted four years ago targeting accidental leaks and flaring of natural gas at well sites are having a measurable effect on methane levels or imposing costs and uncertainty on U.S. producers. This issue is not just a debate between climate change activists and energy companies, but U.S. energy producers are divided on this issue.

Natural gas is abundant and affordable domestically. U.S. government and international bodies credit the adoption of natural gas to generate electricity and supply heat for much of the reduction of CO2 in the last 20 years. U.S. methane emissions from oil and gas activity have gone up only slightly over the previous 15 years, even as natural gas production in the U.S. has increased over 50 percent, according to a recent NOAA studyJust 1.4% of natural gas extracted from reserves escapes into the atmosphere. While large energy companies can live with the current regulatory framework, smaller independent oil and gas producers say excessive rules result in only modest methane reductions. They have an outsized impact on the smaller producers and could drive them out of business. This outcome could have the undesirable effect of shifting energy sourcing back to CO2-spewing coal.

Unlike CO2, methane is both product and bi-product. If it can be captured and transported, it can be sold to utilities and other power suppliers. This opportunity provides a market-based incentive to prevent waste from flaring and leaking at production sites. The International Energy Agency’s Methane Tracker, which looks at global trends in methane, argues it makes economic sense to do this, even with prices at historic lows. Landfill operators need to collect more of the methane produced naturally at these sites. 

Even though the U.S. has managed to produce and use more natural gas without spikes in methane levels, IEA cautions that globally, methane levels have increased substantially in the last 15 years. We must consider all greenhouse gas emissions in a global context that requires countries large and small to commit to policies regarding gas and oil production that improve storage, distribution, and transmission so that less methane escapes.   

Capping and reducing methane levels is a critical step in addressing climate change. The U.S. has managed to become the world’s biggest energy producer while reducing CO2 and holding down methane emissions. There is bipartisan support for using natural gas as a “bridge” fuel to cleaner alternatives and renewables. The fossil fuel industry is investing in supplying the energy we need while investing in solutions to address climate change. 

Amid continually evolving intersection between energy security and climate change, it makes sense to reevaluate regulations to ensure they truly advance climate change goals without unintended consequences on meeting our energy needs. The EPA’s proposed modifications of existing regulations will provide an opportunity to debate these and other relevant policy considerations. This debate will be useful only if all stakeholders accept the reality of a hybrid energy system that requires both renewable and carbon-based sources. Then we can address how to achieve meaningful climate goals while ensuring access to reliable, diversified, sustainable energy for the American people and our economy.


Ambassador Richard Kauzlarich is the Distinguished Visiting Professor, Schar School of Policy and Government,  and Co-Director Center for Energy Science and Policy, George Mason University.

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