Obama and Trudeau's Methane Pledge Takes Aim at the Right Target

The oil and gas industry is the United States' biggest emitter of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
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(Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced today a plan to regulate the oil and gas industry more strictly in order to cut their methane emissions. The politicians promised a 40 to 45 percent reduction in industry methane emissions, compared to 2012 levels, by 2025. In the United States, that should translate to about a 12 percent drop in the amount of methane the country puts into the Earth's atmosphere.

Should Obama and Trudeau succeed, that would make a significant difference to North America's role in global warming. It could also help both countries meet pledges they made during an international climate change conference last year. Although it's less common than carbon dioxide, methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas, able to warm the Earth 25 times more than an equal amount of carbon dioxide would over 100 years. The U.S. is the world's fourth-greatest emitter of methane, while Canada is the twelfth, according to the World Bank's latest data.

The oil and gas industry is the obvious target for methane cuts. It's the biggest source of methane emissions in the U.S. (Other important sources include livestock and landfills.) The industry is occasionally responsible for major leaks, such as the burst of natural gas at a well near Porter Ranch, California, which emitted as much methane as the entire Los Angeles Basin does in a year. Even when they're not leaking, however, oil and gas operations release a lot of methane, just incidentally. "Almost every time you have hydrocarbon production and infrastructure, you can measure leaks out of them," Thomas Ryerson, a chemist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told Pacific Standard recently. Methane seeps out of devices used in the mining, processing, and piping of natural gas. It evades seals. It escapes storage tanks. Even coal mines emit methane.

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency will write up new regulations for the oil and gas industry, Obama and Trudeau said in a statement. In the past, industry spokespeople have said formal regulation isn't needed, but it seems North America's heads of state disagree.

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Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.

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