Hot off the presses (sorry!) from the wonderful folks at the Congressional Research Service: Methane: An Introduction to Emission Sources and Reduction Strategies, by Richard K. Lattanzio, Kelsi Bracmort, James E. McCarthy, and Lynn J. Cunningham (15 August 2016).
Click on the graphics to enlarge them.
The Obama Administration’s Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions
On June 25, 2013, President Obama announced a national “Climate Action Plan” (CAP) to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs), as well as to encourage adaptation to expected climate change. One of the initiatives within the CAP focused on the control of methane emissions, a potent short-lived climate pollutant. It called for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, the Interior, Labor, and Transportation to develop a comprehensive interagency “Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions.” The Strategy, released on March 28, 2014, committed to steps to cut methane emissions by an estimated 16% from 2012 levels by 2020 through both voluntary actions and agency rulemaking. It also outlined the Administration’s efforts to improve the measurement and assessment of these emissions.
Perspectives on the Strategy
Some stakeholders, including many in the affected sectors (i.e., agriculture, fossil energy, and waste management), have raised concerns over federal proposals requiring more stringent controls. They argue that further regulation of methane emissions would not provide cost- effective health and environmental benefits. Some industries contend that they are already doing everything feasible to capture and reuse methane emissions (for requisite safety and economic reasons) and that state and local authorities—who share a closer understanding of the industries’ specific circumstances—are best equipped to oversee and enforce emission reduction efforts within their jurisdictions.
Other stakeholders, including many health and environmental advocates, contend that the Strategy and its proposed rulemakings fall short. They argue that methane emissions can jeopardize worker safety, lead to ground-level ozone formation (commonly referred to as “smog”), and act as a potent GHG. Recent events in the United States (e.g., the rise in domestic oil and natural gas production, the encroachment of domestic oil and natural gas production on new or more populated areas, and the revitalization of the petrochemical manufacturing sector) have led these stakeholders to suggest the need for more enforceable standards. Likewise, they estimate that the Obama Administration’s recent GHG reduction targets, offered under the U.S. commitments to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, would be unattainable without further controls.
The Role of Methane
Behind it all is methane—the world’s simplest hydrocarbon and the primary component of natural gas. It is released into the atmosphere by both natural sources (such as wetlands and wildfires) and human activities (such as oil and natural gas systems, coal mines, landfills, and the raising of livestock). When captured, methane can be used as either a fuel or a chemical feedstock, with many advantages over other fossil fuels (e.g., it is more versatile and less polluting). Its dual nature as both a pollutant and a commodity makes efforts to control emissions potentially beneficial to both the environment and the economy.
For these reasons, as far back as the 1970s, the federal government has sought policies to help reduce, capture, and reuse methane emissions. Whether strategies to control emissions are effective and cost-efficient for a given industry may depend upon a number of factors, including the nature and extent of the emissions, the technology available for capture, and the market price for the recovered products. In this way, the cost-benefit considerations are similar to those of energy efficiency efforts, wherein high up-front investments and other market barriers, if confronted by producers, may be offset over time.
Recent federal policies have included a variety of funding programs for research and technology development as well as voluntary programs and tax incentives for industry. Historically, methane emissions were addressed directly by two federal rules: one on new municipal landfills and another on federal oil and gas leases. Since the Strategy’s release, the Administration has proposed and finalized several additional rules—on oil and natural gas systems, coal mines, and municipal landfills. These rulemakings—as well as a variety of legislative efforts in Congress— attest to the continued interest in an appropriate policy response to the issue of methane emissions.