4 Signs We're Getting Serious About a Potent, Long-Overlooked Climate Pollutant

Environmental Defense Fund has long argued that methane, that "other important greenhouse gas," should be part of any serious discussion about national and global climate action. This year, we're finally having that discussion.

Thanks to a confluence of recent events in the United States and beyond, methane - which today accounts for one-quarter of the warming Earth is experiencing - has become a topic of global conversation. All we need now is the will to act.

We know affordable and effective solutions exist to prevent, detect and repair leaks in the oil and gas sector. Here are four reasons I believe 2016 may finally be the year we begin to take truly comprehensive measures to address methane pollution, one of our most serious climate challenges today.

1) Aliso Canyon energizes efforts

The Aliso Canyon disaster is the poster child for what happens when dilapidated oil and gas infrastructure meets poor maintenance, weak regulations and lax oversight.

The methane that leaked from Aliso Canyon between October 2015 and February 2016 has the same 20-year climate impact as burning nearly a billion gallons of gasoline. Our infrared videos of the plume made the crisis visible to millions. And helicopter flyovers of more than 8,000 well pads show that leaks can and do happen anywhere.

During the leak, and even now as the clean-up of the Aliso Canyon disaster continues, no one can deny that this single event helped focus the nation's attention on the methane problem and lack of industry oversight. As a result, natural gas storage facilities are now getting a closer look

A new, federal multi-agency task force will be formed to lead the first-ever review of the nation's 400-plus, aging underground storage tanks. Such efforts are in tandem with new rules now underway to make operators monitor and maintain their equipment.

As Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz noted recently, "Regrettably, there's a broader theme than Aliso Canyon."

More than 94,000 tons of methane were emitted from Aliso Canyon, the worst natural gas leak in U.S. history.

2) States show the way

Colorado was the first state to regulate oil and gas pollution, and its efforts are yielding a significant decrease in methane emissions at low cost.

California, the nation's second-largest user of natural gas is not far behind. By the end of the year, the state should have a comprehensive new program in place to stop leaks from the well to the household, making it the first state anywhere to do so.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf recently announced nationally leading controls and more frequent monitoring and repair for wells, pipelines, compressors and other infrastructure to capture methane leaks. Importantly, these proposed protections would cover more than 5,000 wells and facilities already operating.

Gov. Tom Wolf is proposing better controls and more frequent monitoring and repair for wells, pipelines, compressors and other infrastructure to capture methane leaks. Importantly, these new rules will include the more than 5,000 wells and facilities operating today.

And in Ohio, a new state permitting policy requires natural gas companies to check facilities for leaks on a quarterly basis, using infrared cameras or handheld analyzers - and to quickly fix the leaks they find.

Many of the cost-effective technologies already at work - which can cut methane pollution in half over the next few years - were, in fact, developed in Ohio.

Fixing methane leaks is both affordable and effective.

3) Setting federal priorities straight

New federal regulations are being finalized to step up monitoring of new oil and gas infrastructure nationwide.

But addressing future facilities doesn't help us with the emissions that already exist. Recently revised estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency show that the oil and gas industry pumps more than 9.8 million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere every year. That's 34 percent higher than the agency's previous estimates.

So in March, President Obama also committed to rapidly curbing methane emissions from existing operations. The EPA is in the early stages of researching and crafting this new rule.
Meanwhile, a separate rule addressing methane pollution and waste from already-existing facilities on public and tribal lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management is moving forward.

Collectively, these actions will have a real impact on emissions and help us slow the pace of global warming.

Hydraulic fracturing in Utah. Photo: WildEarth Guardians

4) U.S. and Canada methane pact sets global example

Fittingly, Obama's commitment to address methane pollution from existing sources was announced when the leaders of the United States and Canada agreed to cooperate to cut emissions from their respective oil and gas industries.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to make Canada cut emissions by up to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025, matching an earlier U.S pledge.

The central place of methane in this new pact with Canada - and as a top priority for both governments - underscores the growing international momentum on the issue.

There is also an opportunity for Mexico to join its northern neighbors and show a North American commitment to action. Addressing the oil and gas sector was among commitments Mexico made under the Paris climate accord.

Oil and gas production carries a responsibility to deal with the impacts that follow - to protect our environment, but also so we can ensure that natural gas accelerates, rather than impedes, our transition to a lower-carbon, clean energy future.

Let's make 2016 the year we, as a global community, realize and act upon this responsibility.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Obama sealed a bilateral methane deal in March, 2016.

This article originally appeared on the EDF Voices blog and is reprinted with permission.