A large gas well sits in Pennsylvania fields and foothills.
The Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that stretches through parts of Pennsylvania, above, is a rich source of methane in the United States. Credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli/Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0

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On 20 January, the new administration of President Joe Biden issued an executive order calling for consideration of new methane regulations in the oil and gas sector. More stringent regulations could be a major part of climate change mitigation, as the United States is the world’s largest producer of natural gas with steadily increasing production.

“Methane is now fully in the gun sights of climate regulators,” said Durwood Zaelke, founder and president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development. Such regulations are “one of the fastest pieces of climate mitigation that’s available to slow near-term warming and avoid feedbacks and tipping points,” he said.

Biden’s executive order comes just days after the release of a Methane Tracker report released by the International Energy Agency on 18 January. “Regulatory action to reduce methane emissions is more important now than ever before.…[Because] oil and gas will continue to be part of the energy mix for years to come, even in rapid clean energy transitions, it is crucial for the oil and gas industry to be proactive in limiting, in all ways possible, the environmental impact of their supply,” according to the report.

Understanding Methane Leaks

Although methane and carbon dioxide are both greenhouse gases with natural and industrial emission sources, their industrial emissions are associated with different human activities. Carbon emissions are associated with burning fossil fuels in motor vehicles, in thermal power plants, and for cooking. Almost zero methane emissions are associated with these activities, explained Drew Shindell, head of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s scientific advisory panel and a professor of climate science at Duke University.

“The United States has 2–3 times more emissions per barrel of oil produced or per million cubic meter of gas [than Saudi Arabia].”

Instead, fossil methane emissions arise predominantly in the form of accidental leaks across the oil and gas value chain during extraction, processing, and transportation. As for countries most responsible for methane emissions, Methane Tracker ranks Russia and the United States at numbers 1 and 2, respectively.

“Countries like Saudi Arabia have very efficient systems. But the United States has 2–3 times more emissions per barrel of oil produced or per million cubic meter of gas [than Saudi Arabia],” Shindell said.

“So, all we really need to do,” he continued, “is put in these well-understood additional capacities to use the [methane] gas and maintain compresses, pumps, pipelines and storage tanks the way Saudi Arabia does it.…Canada is doing a good job. If more countries controlled their leaky systems, emissions would drop.”

Impact of COVID-19

Global methane emissions from the oil and gas sector fell by 10% in 2020, according to the Methane Tracker report. But although the fall is good news, the drop is attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic rather than industry efforts to control methane leaks.

The pandemic radically reduced demand for natural gas among both individual and corporate consumers. This drop in demand slowed production in areas with high emissions, including Libya, Venezuela, and the shale-drilling regions of the United States.

“[In 2020], we’ve seen drops in emissions of lots of things like [carbon dioxide] and air pollution. So it’s not surprising that methane had dropped too,” Shindell said.

Industrial Reform

Although “there’s no real reason to think the industry has suddenly changed its practices so dramatically,” Shindell said, controlling methane leaks is in the industry’s long-term financial interest.

“Take a wrench, go to your pipeline, tighten the fittings, and you end up with more natural gas to sell to your customers,” Zaelke pointed out. “Employing people to plug the [methane] leaks will also create jobs. This is a good jobs strategy now that the focus is on how to rebuild the economy after the COVID crisis and it is a good climate strategy,” he added.

Data in the Methane Tracker report support this comprehensive conclusion. Natural gas is often seen as a bridge fuel, and it is “vital that policy makers recognise action to reduce methane as a pivotal element of energy transitions” to renewables, the report says.

Biden’s executive order provides a broad outline for reconsidering performance and emissions guidelines for methane and volatile organic compounds, “including the exploration and production, transmission, processing, and storage segments, by September 2021.”

—Rishika Pardikar (@rishpardikar), Science Writer


Pardikar, R. (2021), What a new executive order means for curbing methane emissions, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO154028. Published on 29 January 2021.

Text © 2021. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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