Methane regulations were one victory of the Glasgow climate talks. What comes next?
This year’s global climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, came with the usual sense of anticlimax: lots of lofty rhetoric, too little action. But world leaders made at least one meaningful pledge. More than 100 nations, including the United States, committed to reducing methane emissions by 30% by the end of decade.
This commitment is a big deal. Methane, the “evil twin” of carbon dioxide, is responsible for roughly half of historical climate warming to date, despite being marketed as the cleaner burning fossil fuel. After flying under the radar for far too long, methane is finally having its moment of policy action.
Methane is the primary constituent of natural gas and can trap over 80 times the amount of heat that carbon dioxide can. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s October report underscored how urgently the world needs to control methane — concentrations of the gas were estimated to be higher in 2019 than at any time in at least 800,000 years, contributing to the warming that increasingly fuels wildfires, superstorms, droughts and other climate threats globally. Given methane’s extreme impacts on temperature but relatively short lifetime in the atmosphere — about 12 years, whereas carbon dioxide persists for centuries — methane reductions are the most effective way to slow warming in the near term.
Reducing methane is also good for public health: It leads to the formation of ground-level ozone, linked to more than 1 million pollution-related deaths every year and millions more instances of chronic disease.
An estimated 60% of methane emissions are caused by human activity, with the vast majority coming from three industries: agriculture, energy and waste management. Livestock accounts for 32% of human-caused methane emissions, highlighting a particular need for agriculture to rethink its practices.
But many environmental and energy experts point to the oil and gas sector as key, because there are practical steps available now that could quickly curb its methane emissions.
To start, the oil and gas industry emits methane from wells that aren’t even used anymore. The Environmental Protection Agency has reported there are around 3.4 million abandoned wells nationwide leaking methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (California has an estimated 5,500 deserted wells.) The overwhelming majority are not plugged and have no known operator, or none capable of plugging them. Environmental regulators are discovering more orphaned wells all the time — the number on the EPA’s list has grown by 84% since 1990. They are often found in odd places, deep in the woods and along riverbanks, sometimes even beneath people’s homes. In 2019 alone they emitted an estimated 263,000 metric tons of methane.
There’s tremendous opportunity to find and plug as many of these wells as possible, fast, especially in top energy-producing states like Texas and Pennsylvania. These efforts will rapidly reduce emissions while creating tens of thousands of green energy sector jobs in the process. President Biden was right to allocate nearly $4.3 billion in grants for states to plug and remediate these wells in his bipartisan infrastructure law. Federal funds distributed through the states can be used to hire workers from the shrinking oil and gas industry to carry out well-plugging programs