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US announces rule to slash powerful planet-warming methane by nearly 80% from oil and gas

Angus Mordant/Reuters

The Biden administration has finalized a rule to significantly cut the US oil and gas industry’s emissions of methane, a powerful planet-warming gas that scientists and climate advocacy groups have pressed nations to rapidly reduce as global temperature soars.

The announcement came amid a wave of commitments at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai on Saturday, including a pledge from at least 117 countries to triple renewable energy by 2030. Vice President Kamala Harris also announced the US was committing another $3 billion to global climate action.

Methane, the main component of natural gas and a byproduct of fossil fuel drilling, is a potent source of climate pollution with more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide during its first two decades in the atmosphere. The oil and gas industry is one of the main sources of global methane emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.

The new US rule, which will be implemented by the Environmental Protection Agency, is expected to slash methane emissions by nearly 80% through 2038, compared to what they would have been without the rule. The EPA estimates it will stop about 58 million tons of methane from escaping into the atmosphere during that period – the equivalent of taking more than 300 million gas-powered cars off the road for a year.

The rule will crack down on methane leaks from industry in several ways. In a major new development, it will end routine flaring of the natural gas that is a byproduct of drilling oil wells and will phase in a requirement for that gas to be captured instead of burned. The rule will also require stringent leak monitoring of oil and gas wells and compressors, and cut down on leaks from equipment like pumps, storage tanks and controllers.

It will also rely on independent, third-party monitoring – using satellites and other remote-sensing technology – to find very large methane leaks.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan and White House National Climate Adviser Ali Zaidi unveiled the rule at COP28 on Saturday – a day where cutting methane emissions was a major theme and other multi-lateral announcements were made.

Regan said the US rule signified “strong action” from the Biden administration by “significantly slashing methane emissions.” The US is the world’s largest oil producer, drilling and selling 21% of the world’s oil last year.

“From mobilizing billions in investment to plug orphaned wells, patch leaky pipes, and reclaim abandoned mines to setting strong standards that will cut pollution from the oil and gas sector, the Biden-Harris Administration is putting the full weight of the federal government into slashing harmful methane pollution,” Zaidi added in a statement.

Speaking to CNN at COP28, Zaidi reiterated the need for accountability and data on methane emissions is key to enforcement.

“In addition to commitments and transparency, we’ve got to get the receipts – make sure we’re making the progress we need to make,” Zaidi said.

Methane emissions surged in recent years, to the surprise of scientists and energy experts, who are now advocating for capping leaks and ending flaring and venting as easy ways to pump the brakes on the pace of global warming.

Pollution experts and climate advocates told CNN there is plenty of incentive for oil and gas companies to fix the leaks and stop most flaring, since it ultimately means they can pollute less while selling more oil and gas.

“There’s a lot of opportunity,” Carrie Jenks, the executive director of Harvard Law School’s Environmental & Energy Law Program, told CNN. “Companies should want to reduce their leaks because that’s more product. All the incentives should align here.”

The EPA’s plan to end routine flaring is a major step forward, said Jon Goldstein, senior director for regulatory and legislative affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, who focuses on methane pollution.

“The latest science is showing that flares are not just sources of waste, they’re also large sources of pollution because they’re just not working right,” Goldstein said. “The easiest way to stop that pollution is to stop sending it to flares in the first place. It doesn’t seem logical, why are you burning off this product you can sell?”

50 companies commit to slashing methane

Fifty major oil and gas companies, including Exxon and Saudi Aramco, signed a pledge on Saturday to cut their methane emissions by the end of the decade, according to an announcement by COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber and the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund.

The new Oil and Gas Compact commits each company to reducing their methane intensity by around 80 to 90% by 2030.

Recent studies from the EDF suggest oil and gas operations worldwide have a methane intensity of around 2 to 3% – this is roughly how much methane gas is released during drilling, venting or flaring, or in pipeline and compressor leaks. The companies are committing to cutting that methane intensity percentage to 0.2% by 2030.

The agreement also commits the companies to third-party verification that they are cracking down on leaks or improper flaring, following international standards set by the Oil and Gas Methane Partnership 2.0, according to EDF president Fred Krupp.

“Without an iota of hype, this compact is the biggest thing that will reduce temperatures on the planet in decades,” Krupp said in a statement.

Because of methane’s potency, scientists have emphasized in recent years that swiftly cutting methane emissions is key to limiting the climate crisis. Rapid and large-scale efforts to slash human-caused methane emissions could slow global heating by as much as 30%, according to an EDF analysis.

Others were critical of the announcement as not being ambitious enough. Murray Worthy, a senior oil and gas researcher at Zero Carbon Analytics, noted that it doesn’t go further than commitments from previous years, and that “industry has yet to deliver” on those promises.

“Most importantly it doesn’t require companies to deal with the main cause of emissions from fossil fuels, which is burning them,” Worthy said in a statement.

Later in the day Saturday, a group of organizations led by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the United Nations announced it will launch a new program to ensure the 50 oil companies are following through on those promises to reduce methane leaks from their operations.

“The better we can measure problems like greenhouse gas emissions, the better we can manage them,” said Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire philanthropist and former mayor of New York City.

Al Jaber praised the pledge and said it was aligned with the goal to keep the Paris Agreement goal within reach. But he also said “it is not enough.”

“I say with full passion and conviction, much more can be done,” he said.

Correction: The oil and gas industry is one of the main sources of global methane emissions. This story has been updated.

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