The Hot Air About Methane

When President Biden left for the COP26 meeting in Glasgow recently, his primary plan for reaching the greenhouse gas reduction goals in the Paris Accords was in disarray.  The cause of this disarray was mainly the opposition of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.  But Biden had Plan B, which involves a two-pronged approach to sharply reducing methane emissions.  In Glasgow, Biden announced that more than thirty countries have pledged to cut emissions of methane 30% by 2030.  Given our decades-long focus on reducing carbon dioxide, this pivot to methane is a bit disorienting.

Carbon dioxide is by far the largest contributor to climate change, and it comes from recognizable fossil fuel sources such as coal-burning utilities, and automobile tailpipes. Carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, making the climate change it causes not just a current problem, but a future one as well.

Yet some experts say that methane (CH4) is a bigger problem than carbon dioxide (CO2).  While methane dissipates naturally after about 100 years, its pound for pound impact is 25 times greater than carbon dioxide in trapping heat reflected from the Earth’s surface.

Sources of Methane

Some methane occurs naturally from the decay of plant and animal matter. Domestic livestock, such as beef cattle, pigs and sheep, produce CH4 as part of their normal digestive process.  But human-produced methane far exceeds what is produced naturally.

Agriculture, including raising of cattle for human consumption and management of animal wastes, is the single largest source of methane. Natural gas and petroleum systems are the second largest source. The U.S. oil and gas industry emits more methane than the total emissions of greenhouse gases from 164 countries combined. Landfills are the third-largest source.

Some politicians call natural gas a “bridge fuel,” meaning that burning it emits less carbon dioxide than burning coal.  But it is wrong to call natural gas clean. Methane is the primary component of natural gas. Methane is emitted during the production, processing, storage, transmission, and distribution of natural gas.  In addition, burning natural gas still releases carbon.

Satellite imagery of the Permian gas field in Texas show huge plumes of methane erupting from hot spots throughout the area. No human artifice or industrial process is infallible, and that is certainly true with gas production and pipeline transmission. Major failures to capture methane and leaks from pipelines, pumps and valves are endemic.

Biden’s Plan B 

Not surprisingly, Biden’s plan to reduce methane emissions focuses on the oil and gas industry.  Regulations issued under President Obama placed controls on methane emissions from new and modified sources in the industry, but failed to address existing wells, production facilities and pipelines.  Even as toothless as they were, these regulations were shelved during the Trump Administration.  In April 2021, Congress restored the Obama-era methane regulations.

Then on the eve of Biden’s trip to Glasgow, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a proposed new rule that covers existing sources of methane emissions in the oil and gas industry. The proposed rule involves a comprehensive monitoring program for new and existing well sites and compressor stations, and proposed performance standards for other sources, such as storage tanks, pneumatic pumps, and compressors.

The proposed rule would reduce 41 million tons of methane emissions from 2023 to 2035, the equivalent of 920 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s more than the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from all U.S. passenger cars and commercial aircraft in 2019. The EPA will receive public comment for 60 days and projects a new final rule by the end of 2022.

Also Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which just passed both houses and awaits the President’s signature, contains a provision to spend $4.7 billion to clean up abandoned oil and gas wells, many of which spew methane into the atmosphere.  Central West Virginia is littered with these orphan wells.

But the stronger second prong of Biden’s Plan B is a methane tax contained in the Build Back Better social spending bill that has not passed either the House or the Senate. As described in a recent Forbes article, the plan would tax methane emitted in excess of specified thresholds and begin at $60 per ton. It would take effect in 2023, with the revenues used to administer the program, provide technical and financial assistance to companies for monitoring and reducing emissions, and to support communities affected by pollution from oil and gas systems.

A fee on methane would boost the incentive for companies to reduce emissions and require them to internalize the cost of the methane pollution they emit. A methane fee would perform double duty — raising revenues and discouraging pollution — doing so among the very businesses responsible . Climate policy experts say that the two-pronged approach — regulation and fee — is necessary to shut down methane emissions, particularly because executive regulations alone could be undone by a future administration.

By now, we are all aware of the immense power that has fallen to Senator Joe Manchin purely because he is a key vote in a balanced Senate.  Unfortunately for the environmental community, his power has been exercised to block legislation that is widely seen as necessary to meet the challenge of climate change.  Having already caused the removal of Biden’s plan to radically reduce CO2 emissions in the electric power sector, all eyes are now on Manchin regarding the methane tax in the Build Back Better Act.

Initial signs are not good, even though Democrats reduced the starting fee level from $1500 per ton to $60 to win Manchin’s support.  But Manchin appears still to be opposed, arguing that since we have the technology to reduce methane then the technology should be used, not a fee that he regards as punitive.  One wonders how it is “punitive” to impose a fee designed to cause the largest industrial producers of methane finally to end their harmful practices.  Instead it seems exactly the sort of measure required to make them internalize the true cost of their behavior. The language of money is the language this industry understands.