With the new methane standards announced by President Obama in the middle of May, the U.S. moves further towards regulating the largely unchecked natural gas industry. The standards will cut methane emissions from new and modified extraction sites from the oil and gas sector– in particular from hydraulic fracturing or fracking sites that extract natural gas. The standards are a part of President Obama’s strategy to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, specifically reducing methane emissions from this industry by 40 – 45% from 2012 levels by 2025. The new methane standards are expected to reduce 510,000 short tons of methane in 2025, the equivalent of reducing 11 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
But do why do these new standards matter? Do they even make a difference? The answer is yes. Here are five reasons why Obama’s new methane regulations matter:
- Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Methane, with a global warming potential more than 25 times greater than that of carbon dioxide, is a major contributor to climate change. In order to successfully combat climate change, methane emissions must be reeled in.
- The U.S. has been underestimating its methane emissions. New data has shown that methane emissions from existing oil and gas sources are substantially higher than was being recorded. Methane is the second most emitted GHG in the U.S., and the natural gas industry accounts for one-third of those methane emissions.
- Small leaks and big spills. Methane leaks are frequent during the production, transportation and use of natural gas. This can undo the supposed climate-benefits of natural gas being used as an alternative to coal. As was seen in California’s Aliso Canyon, where methane leaked from a natural gas storage facility for four months, methane leaks are dangerous not only because they emit GHGs, but because of its colorless, odorless characteristics, the general public won’t know that there was a leak (as is the case with oil spills) and can face threats to human health.
- Methane has been largely under-regulated. Natural gas from fracking has been unregulated ever since becoming commercially viable in the U.S., at both the federal and local levels. Oil and gas companies have had lax oversight and monitoring programs in place to check for methane leaks. With no pressure from regulation to put technologies in place that can check and capture methane leaks, these companies have not had the incentives to implement safety measures to prevent methane leaks. As a result, leaks occur on a daily basis from these extraction sites, sometimes unknowingly, and often with no efforts to contain them.
- The 2015 Paris Agreement. Finally after decades of negotiation, our world leaders have come to a global agreement on climate change. It’s a big deal. Other countries must see that the U.S., the second largest contributor to global GHG emissions, is acting on climate, and this means addressing methane emissions that can easily be reduced. In addition, in order to actually achieve its commitment of reducing GHG 28% below 2005 levels by 2025, the U.S. needs to target emissions from every sector, in particular from the unregulated industries like the natural gas industry.