Column: Targeting methane as big step to slow down global warming – The San Diego Union-Tribune
Methane may never rival carbon dioxide as the main culprit of climate change in the public mind, but it’s getting a lot more attention these days.
There’s no either/or here. The effort to stave off dire consequences from global warming is multifaceted.
Methane doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, but it’s a far more powerful greenhouse gas. Greatly reducing, if not eliminating, methane emissions could result in shorter-term climate change gains that help buy more time for the larger effort to be waged.
Sharp limits on methane and other powerful, short-lived pollutants — including hydrofluorocarbons often used as coolants — could “make a make a big difference in the global temperatures we experience in our lifetime and the lifetime of our kids,” according to the National Resources Defense Council.
Carbon reductions, which are necessary, aren’t expected to have positive climate impacts until the latter part of this century.
Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, last week introduced legislation aimed at reducing methane releases, one of several bills he and bipartisan members of Congress have pursued as pieces in the overall puzzle of trying to keep the Earth’s climate from heating up to dangerous levels.
Legislation signed into law to phase out hydrofluorocarbons was a notable achievement for a polarized Congress last year.
The full name of Peters’ METHANE Act proposal borders on tongue-twister territory: Methane Emissions Technology to Help Achieve Net-Zero Emissions Act.
The legislation would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to set methane emission limits for oil and gas facilities, but allow the owners to figure out how to meet the standard. The limits would be required to drop in three-year increments to meet ultimate reduction targets, according to a release from Peters.
The EPA also would require the industries to improve detection and repairing of leaking systems “similar to the approach taken by the European Union.”
The ongoing push for climate change legislation comes as President Joe Biden seeks to reassert U.S. leadership against global warming, following four years of regulation rollbacks under former President Donald Trump.
The Senate on Wednesday is expected to re-instate Obama-era controls on methane releases that were scrapped by Trump, according to The New York Times. Peters said his bill would move beyond that, allowing flexibility to take advantage of new and emerging monitoring and detection technologies.
Biden last week said the U.S plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 to “set America on a path of net zero emissions economy by no later than 2050.”
Peters said it’s important to match standards with what Europe is doing on methane and other pollutants not only to move the U.S. forward, but to re-establish American credibility on climate change around the world.
The damage — and potential opportunity — methane presents may come into sharper focus soon. The United Nations is expected to release a report next month detailing how methane reduction “will need to play a far more vital role in warding off the worst effects of climate change,” according to the Times.
Peters’ legislation seeks to appeal to business by giving industries flexibility to devise solutions, while making the U.S. more competitive by aligning with standards of other nations. He again noted that France last year blocked a $7 billion deal for a shipment of liquid natural gas from a facility in Texas because of methane emissions in the United States.
“The industry has to understand it’s in their self-interest,” he said.
The Times said cutting methane emissions “might be an easier lift” than reducing carbon dioxide in part because of technology advances, but also because the gas isn’t released by burning other fossil fuels, but largely from leaks in the gas and oil systems.
Capturing and using the escaping gas could offset the cost of fixing the system.
“That potential makes plugging leaks from oil and gas infrastructure the most effective and cheapest way to slow emissions, the U.N. report says,” according to the Times.
Hydrofluorocarbon businesses became convinced last year that legislation for a 15-year phase-out of their product — allowing time to develop alternatives — was necessary for the future, given so many countries were banning the coolant. Their support was crucial to winning approval of the proposal.
Methane and hydrofluorocarbons are considered “super pollutants,” along with black soot from wildfires, wood burning and diesel-fuel combustion. They can cause as much as 40 percent of the Earth’s heating, according to a February column in The San Diego Union-Tribune co-authored by V. Ram Ramanathan, professor of climate stability at UC San Diego; Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development; and Peters.
“Fortunately, these pollutants are short-lived in the atmosphere,” they wrote. “If we act aggressively to reduce and eliminate them, we can dramatically slow climate change. If we don’t curb them very soon, our work to abate carbon dioxide emissions won’t be enough to avoid catastrophe.”
They noted that scientists warn aggregate global warming of more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit or even 2.7 degrees “could harm our planet and its habitability beyond repair.”
They underscored the necessity of targeting carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles, factories and other sources to avoid that fate. But overall reductions, or elimination, of fossil fuels will be a slow process and they emphasize the importance of more quickly clamping down on the super pollutants in the interim.
Not everybody gets that.
“I’m still surprised by the level of confusion among people,” Peters said in an interview.
Many point to the shift from coal to cleaner natural gas as progress, which it is. But Peters said that only goes so far if methane emissions from gas and oil works are not tamed.
Members of Congress and some state governments are looking to address two other major sources of methane emissions: farms and landfills. Efforts around the world are being made — and studied — to reduce those emissions.
Changes in feed, gas-capturing technology and scientific advancements have shown methane from cows can be reduced. Alternatives to meat and dairy products are growing, but it’s unclear whether or when that could lead to a substantial decrease in cattle and the methane they produce.
Food waste is a major source of methane in landfills but several states, including California, have relatively new food recycling laws to address that.
Peters right now is focused on the need for the gas and oil industry to deal with methane emissions. He’s spreading his message far and wide.
Earlier this month, Peters accepted an invitation to address the Energy Security Forum, where he was a rare featured Democrat at the session — which was held at the Petroleum Club of Houston.
“People looked at me like I was a unicorn,” he said.
He preached, nevertheless, even if it wasn’t exactly to the choir.