As part of President Barack Obama’s plan to address climate change without legislation from Congress, the White House on Friday announced a new strategy to combat emissions of methane — a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide — from landfills, agriculture, and the fossil fuel industry.
The announcement was less a proposal of new, sweeping regulations, and more of a pledge to study methane and set the path for potential regulations. President Obama’s top energy and climate aide Dan Utech told reporters Friday that the Bureau of Land Management does plan on regulating methane emissions from oil and gas wells on public lands by the end of 2014 by requiring reductions in gas venting and flaring.
Regulating methane emissions from agriculture, landfills, and fossil fuel development on private lands is a bit more complicated, so Utech said the Environmental Protection Agency plans on studying whether broad regulations would be needed for those industries’ methane emissions under the Clean Air Act. If the research shows that more regulations are needed, those would be completed before the end of 2016, when Obama leaves the White House.
“We won’t know specifically for awhile what this strategy will deliver,” Utech told reporters on a conference call. “The strategy itself indicates that EPA is going to undertake [studies] to try to understand better both the what emissions are there, what the options are for controlling those emissions, and in the fall we’ll determine the best path forward.”
Methane, the primary component of natural gas, only accounts for close to 9 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. But over the first 20 years it is emitted, methane is also 84 times more effective than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Over the first 100 years, methane is 28 percent more potent.
Methane emissions come from a variety of sources. Municipal solid waste landfills, for example, emit gas — approximately 18 percent of the U.S.’s total methane emissions in 2012, according to White House statistics. That same year, 28 percent of methane emissions was attributed to the oil and natural gas sectors. Ten percent of U.S. methane emissions came from coal mining, and nearly 36 percent came from agriculture (of which cow flatulence is a contributing factor). Those emissions are only projected to increase through 2030 if additional action is not taken, the White House’s methane reduction plan says, warning of its negative effect on a warming world.
“Every ton of methane in the atmosphere has a global warming effect that is more than 20 times greater than a ton of carbon dioxide,” the plan said. “Thus, methane reductions yield important climate benefits, particularly in the near term.”
With its strategy, Utech says the White House hopes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90 million metric tons in 2020 — the pollution equivalent of approximately 474 million cars.
The White House plan pointed to economic benefits from reducing emissions of methane, noting that any methane that is not emitted can be used productively for power generation, and that projects to reduce methane can spur both jobs and investment in local economies.
Because methane is also a contributor to ground level ozone and therefore smog, the White House is also touting public health benefits from methane reductions.