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Obama sidesteps Congress to curb methane emissions

The latest step in the White House's new Climate Action Plan is a new plan to curb methane, a far more potent trapper of heat than carbon dioxide. The plan relies heavily on cooperation with oil, gas, and dairy industries.

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Steve Lipsky demonstrates how his well water ignites when he puts a flame to the flowing well spigot outside his family's home in rural Parker County near Weatherford, Texas. Scientists analyzing methane-contaminated water in North Texas believe evidence pinpoints a nearby gas drilling operation can as the source of the problem.

AP Photo/LM Otero

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The White House announced on Friday a cross-agency strategy to reduce emissions of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas that seeps into the atmosphere from four major sources: oil and gas extraction, cattle and dairy farming, coal mining, and landfills.

The administration's latest effort to curb domestic climate change contributions sidesteps Congress but promises friendly cooperation with the industries most responsible for methane emissions. It is part of the long-term executive Climate Action Plan (CAP) announced last June.

"Taking action to curb methane waste and pollution is important because emissions of methane make up nearly 9 percent of all the greenhouse gas emitted as a result of human activity in the United States," said the administration in a press release. 

That nine percent is more significant than it may sound, because methane traps far more heat in the atmosphere than does carbon dioxide.  

"Per mass, methane is absorbing up to 100 times more mass than carbon dioxide," says Bob Howarth, a Cornell University Earth systems scientist who has served as a methane expert for the National Academy of Sciences.

Methane, he explains, absorbs many infrared wavelengths that neither carbon dioxide nor water vapor molecules are built to absorb. And although methane stays in the atmosphere for just 12 years – compared to 50 to 200 years for CO2 – it disappears by oxidizing, thereby becoming CO2, which continues to absorb heat.

Since the CAP's roll-out last summer, multiple studies have indicated that ranching and natural gas extraction both emit far more methane than the US Environmental Protection Agency had acknowledged. In response, the new methane strategy includes four main points: 

• Landfills: In the summer of 2014, the EPA will propose updated standards to reduce methane from new landfills and take public comment on whether to update standards for existing landfills.

• Coal Mines:  In April 2014, the DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will release an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) to gather public input on the development of a program for the capture and sale, or disposal of waste mine methane on lands leased by the Federal government. 

• Agriculture: In June, in partnership with the dairy industry, the USDA, EPA and DOE will jointly release a “Biogas Roadmap” outlining voluntary strategies to accelerate adoption of methane digesters and other cost-effective technologies to reduce U.S. dairy sector greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020.

• Oil and Gas: Building on success in reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector through voluntary programs and targeted regulations, the Administration will take new actions to encourage additional cost-effective reductions.

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The specific actions targeting oil and gas emissions remain somewhat vague: the EPA will solicit expert studies on potential methane sources, and it will work with the oil and gas industries to expand "voluntary efforts" to reduce emissions. Meanwhile, the BLM will propose new standards to reduce "venting and flaring," the industry practices of releasing and burning excess gases on public and tribal lands.

"Natural gas that is vented or flared during oil and gas development represents a natural resource that is lost without generating royalties for the public and without being used as a productive fuel source," stated a BLM official.

Unsurprisingly, the American Petroleum Institute does not support new regulations on fuel extraction, and argues that the profitability of gathering leaked gas should be enough to guarantee improvements.

"Additional regulations are not necessary and could have a chilling effect on the American energy renaissance, our economy, and our national security," said Howard Feldman, the trade group's Director of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs, in a press release. “Methane is natural gas that operators can bring to the market. There is a built-in incentive to capture these emissions.”

Several environmental groups, however, have applauded the move from an administration that has until recently promoted the economic potential of domestic natural gas, with enthusiasm. In his 2012 State of the Union Address, President Obama said the gas industry's cleanliness and economic promise proved "that we don't have to choose between our environment and our economy."

In contrast, this new initiative is "another sign of the President’s commitment to confronting the climate crisis at a time of partisan gridlock in Washington," said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, in a press statement.

Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund, said that "Methane pollution is an intense contributor to global climate change, and the White House methane strategy is a smart roadmap for taking on the biggest sources of emissions, including natural gas leaks from the oil and gas sector.”

But the strategy focuses primarily on activity on public lands, excluding gas, oil, and coal extraction on the many land parcels owned by energy companies. The BLM estimates that 59 percent of coal is mined on private lands, and gas companies are rapidly buying residential parcels in shale-rich areas.

Also, the involvement of the dairy industry highlights the ranching industry's absence from the White House plan. While dairy cows are reared and milked indoors, where their ruminant gases can plausibly be gathered, beef cattle in outdoor feedlots do not present the same methane-recycling opportunities.

Insofar as oil and gas infrastructure can be cleaned up – including thousands of miles of leaky, buried pipelines, notes Dr. Howarth – many say it is clear that such tweaks will not be nearly enough to curb global warming. The plan's own emphasis on preparing for climate change seems to acknowledge this.

The world leaders who drafted the 2009 Copenhagen Accord determined that worldwide, a rise of two degrees celsius above pre-industrial temperatures was the absolute upper limit the planet could approach while still avoiding catastrophic climate change. Remaining under this limit would mean not burning the vast majority of oil and gas already owned by energy companies. These calculations did not include the impacts of methane.

"Society would be much better served by moving away from all fossil fuel as quickly as possible," says Howarth.

The Obama administration's announcement comes just weeks after the state of Colorado adopted the nation's strictest air pollution laws, explicitly regulating methane leaks in both oil and natural gas extraction.

Before rolling out the federal methane reduction strategy, the White House had announced climate action progress in developing three other projects: renewable energy technologies, new fuel economy standards, and informational "climate hubs" to help farms and cities adapt to climate change.

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