US-Canada pact to cut methane is key step in climate change fight

Methane gas flare

Credit: WildEarth Guardians, flickr

A bilateral agreement between the United States and Canada focuses on regulating methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.

Today, in a historic announcement, President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau pledged to cut methane emissions from currently producing oil and gas wells.

The agreement would cut methane emissions by 40-45% by 2025, adding to President Obama’s growing climate legacy. It would also build on the December, 2015 commitments made by nearly 200 countries at the Paris climate change conference to reduce emissions and slow global warming. The leaders’ focus on the impact of climate change also included several initiatives to protect the Arctic.

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a significant contributor to climate change. While a number of activities contribute to methane emissions, oil and gas wells contribute a whopping 30 percent of all U.S. methane emissions.

The commitment made by the president and the prime minister recognizes that methane emissions are a much larger problem than previously known, which makes regulating methane much more important, especially given that it is a greenhouse gas that is more potent than carbon dioxide.  

Oil and gas industry accounts for the single largest source of methane in the United States and globally. Credit: Mason Cummings

As a result of the agreements, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) will begin developing regulations for methane emissions from existing oil and gas sources. The EPA had already proposed to limit methane emissions from new oil and gas sources with a rule announced in August, 2015. The new standards created by the Obama announcement will ensure existing operations also reduce emissions.

The EPA’s promise to address existing oil and gas operations follows closely on the heels of the proposal put forward by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in late January of this year to regulate natural gas waste from federal and tribal lands. Fortunately, the BLM has shown the way forward on how to structure smart guidelines on existing oil and gas development, providing the EPA with a template.

In order to cut methane emissions by the amounts the president and prime minister have agreed to, both EPA rules are needed in addition to BLM’s rule. The BLM proposal specifically addresses natural gas waste on public lands.

Fossil fuels, including oil and gas, extracted from public lands is responsible for 21 percent of all United States greenhouse gas emissions. Natural gas that is vented, flared and leaked is a significant part of that number.

The proposed BLM rule would charge royalties on wasted natural gas. Those fees would then provide revenue for community amenities like roads, schools and emergency services. The BLM’s rule also addresses flaring—the burning of methane—while the EPA’s will just address venting and leaks. Both types of guidelines will be necessary to seriously address the pollution and waste from oil and gas development.

Climate change is a real and current threat to countries around the world. The Wilderness Society strongly supports President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau’s important efforts to attack this issue head on. A pledge to reduce methane, on public and non-public lands, is a crucial part of any climate solution.