Biden targets oil industry’s methane emissions ahead of climate summit

Jennifer A. Dlouhy April 16, 2021
Methane emissions come from a variety of sources, including livestock.
Methane emissions come from a variety of sources, including livestock.

WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) --The Biden administration is considering singling out the oil industry’s methane emissions for significant reductions as part of a pledge to cut greenhouse gases in advance of a climate summit next week, according to two people familiar with the matter.

President Joe Biden is already expected to unveil an ambitious goal for slashing all greenhouse gases before the April 22 virtual event, which dozens of nations are slated to attend. But activists have pushed the administration to go further when it comes to methane, since it is so potent that reductions over just the next few years can be a major weapon in the fight against climate change.

“It will take a while to slow down the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, but methane turns the dial down a lot faster and a lot sooner,” said Derek Walker, vice president for U.S. climate at the Environmental Defense Fund.

The burden for reducing methane, the primary component of natural gas, would fall largely on the oil industry that is a chief source of it, alongside cow burps, landfills and coal mines. In the oilfield, methane leaks out of processing equipment and is sometimes vented directly from wells.

Some administration officials are wary of appearing to attack the industry by targeting methane, according to the people, who asked not to be named describing private deliberations.

A White House spokesman declined to comment on the matter.

Oil industry officials have encouraged the administration to seek methane reductions across the economy, including from agriculture. While some independent oil producers oppose new methane-cutting mandates, the trade group American Petroleum Institute supports explicit regulation of methane.

“We have an opportunity to build on the significant progress the industry has made in reducing methane emissions through technological advancement,” said Aaron Padilla, the group’s manager of climate policy. “And we are committed to finding common ground on cost-effective government policies.”

The administration is expected to unveil a new reduction target for all greenhouse-gas emissions, known as a nationally determined commitment, next week. People familiar with the deliberations say it will likely call for cutting emissions 50% by 2030 relative to 2005 levels, roughly twice the reduction the Obama White House targeted for 2025.

Methane represents a relatively small share of U.S. emissions and dissipates quickly in the atmosphere -- but it packs a powerful punch while there. It’s estimated that methane warms the atmosphere at a rate 84 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

Environmentalists want the administration to commit to a 40% reduction in methane emissions by 2030, relative to 2005 levels, arguing that’s necessary to keep global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), a threshold for averting the most catastrophic consequences of climate change.

Activists have pressed the case in meetings with administration officials, on television commercials, and via strategy reports and letters, like one that nine top environmental leaders sent Biden on Tuesday.

“Reducing methane emissions represents a prime opportunity to rein in warming over the next two decades, helping to protect vulnerable communities already experiencing serious impacts from climate change,” said the heads of the Clean Air Task Force, Natural Resources Defense Council and seven other groups.

Activists also argue that an explicit methane target could go a long way to restoring U.S. credibility in the eyes of other nations, after former President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement and dismantled domestic climate policies.

A methane-cutting promise from the U.S., the world’s largest oil-and-gas-producing nation, would show a commitment to boosting climate ambition, said Mark Brownstein, senior vice president of energy at the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Increased ambition is not just about commitments to decarbonization over the coming decades, it’s also about immediate action to slow the rate of warming now,” Brownstein said. “And this is the single biggest thing -- the most immediate thing -- the United States can do to slow the rate of warming our planet is experiencing right now.”

It also could galvanize similar action from other countries, including China, the leading emitter of methane from coal mines, said Sarah Smith, director of the Clean Air Task Force’s super pollutants program.

“The world is watching to see what the U.S. does,” Smith said.

On the campaign trail, Biden promised action building on a 2016 pledge the U.S. made with Canada and Mexico to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by at least 40% by 2025. He’s has already directed the Environmental Protection Agency to consider replacing a Trump rule that lifted explicit curbs on methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. And lawmakers are expected this spring to vote on a measure that would immediately repeal the Trump-era policy, making the EPA’s rewrite easier.

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