White House announces new methane regulations, kicking off global pledge

August 2, 2023

Originally published by NBC News. Written by Denise Chow.

GLASGOW, Scotland — The Biden administration on Tuesday announced plans to introduce some of the nation’s strongest regulations against methane emissions from oil and gas drilling, part of a broader push to tackle climate change that White House officials are unveiling at the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

The new rules, proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, aim to curb methane emissions for new and existing oil and gas infrastructure, thereby reducing a significant source of pollution from fossil fuel companies. The regulations target methane leaks and instances when methane gas is purposefully vented, or flared, during the production process.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that is released into the atmosphere when coal, oil and natural gas are mined and transported, but microbes also emit methane in low-oxygen environments. Methane emissions have been responsible for roughly 30 percent of global warming since preindustrial times, according to the U.N. Environment Program.

An estimated 75 percent of the country’s methane emissions will be covered by the new EPA rules, according to senior administration officials.

The American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas lobby group whose membership includes Exxon Mobil and Chevron, appeared to support the proposal, saying in a statement that it is committed to “building on the progress we have achieved in reducing methane emissions.”

“We will continue working with the agency to help shape a final rule that is effective, feasible and designed to encourage further innovation,” Frank Macchiarola, the group’s senior vice president for policy, economics and regulatory affairs, said in the statement.

The EPA rules will be stricter than regulations on methane emissions that were set in 2016 during the Obama administration. Those rules were relaxed by the Trump administration, but methane standards were reinstated shortly after President Joe Biden took office.

In addition to the EPA regulations, John Kerry, Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate, announced Tuesday that more than 100 countries are set to join the United States and the European Union in pledging to collectively reduce the world’s methane emissions by 30 percent by the end of the decade.

Biden joined Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and others to launch the so-called Global Methane Pledge. Though the agreement has wide support, China, Russia and India are some of the key polluters who have not yet signed on.

In his remarks, Biden called the Global Methane Pledge a “game-changing commitment” and one that will help keep alive the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“This isn’t just something we have to do to protect the environment and future,” Biden said. “It’s an enormous opportunity for all of us, all of our nations, to create jobs and make many climate goals a core part of recovery as well.”

Methane accounts for a much smaller percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions compared to carbon dioxide, but methane’s molecular structure makes it more readily able to absorb thermal radiation, meaning it can drive significant short-term warming. As such, methane has 86 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, according to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Research published last year in the journal Earth System Science Data found that human activities contribute about 60 percent of global methane emissions. Agriculture makes up roughly two-thirds of that figure, and fossil fuel production and use account for most of the rest, the study found.

Mark Brownstein, senior vice president of energy at the Environmental Defense Fund, said climate negotiations over the past 30 years have focused on carbon dioxide, but that tackling climate change requires slashing both carbon and methane emissions.

“There’s this misperception that all climate pollutants are basically equal,” he said. “But some of these pollutants, methane chief among them, don’t last in that atmosphere very long but are actually far more powerful in the short term than carbon dioxide.”

The pledge is co-sponsored by the U.S., the world’s largest oil and gas producer, and the E.U., one of the biggest consumers of natural gas. Brownstein said that partnership is significant, and should spur other nations to take part.

Sarah Smith, a program director at the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit advocacy group, hailed the U.S. and E.U. leaders’ involvement in launching the Global Methane Pledge.

“For too long this potent super pollutant has fallen off the agenda at major climate summits while its emissions have risen to all-time highs, pushing our planet closer to potentially irreversible tipping points,” she said in a statement. “By launching the Global Methane Pledge on the world stage, they’ve made sure that methane will be front and center — where it belongs.”