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Biden can make good on EU gas supply and climate pledges by ending methane leaks

A flare for burning excess methane, or natural gas, from crude oil production is seen at a well pad in Watford City, N.D., Aug. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

Russia opened a new front in its energy war with Europe last week, as Russian state gas company Gazprom moved to completely shut off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria and threatened to do the same to others. This heightens the urgency of the Biden administration’s new commitment to replace Russian gas in Europe with U.S.-produced liquified natural gas (LNG). But the administration’s goal of becoming the EU’s new gas supplier is not without its challenges. 

The announcement comes on the heels of yet another major warning from top climate scientists to sever our dependence on fossil fuels, raising concern that U.S. LNG exports are at odds with the urgent need to cut greenhouse emissions.

Fortunately, we can make progress on both challenges with one relatively simple improvement: capturing the mind-boggling amount of natural gas — aka methane — wasted each year by U.S. oil and gas producers.

Operators effectively throw away at least 35 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually, enough to fuel over 17 million homes. The most egregious waste is flaring, simply setting excess gas on fire because producers feel it’s too much trouble to capture it. In other instances, they vent or leak it freely into the atmosphere unburned.

The problem is that methane is a powerful greenhouse pollutant, with over 80 times the near-term warming power of carbon dioxide. Methane emissions from fossil fuel operations, agriculture and other industries is responsible for more than one-quarter of today’s warming.

Our calculations show that proven, technically feasible fixes to mitigate leaks and end routine flaring could yield over half of the LNG pledged to Europe by 2030, fulfilling U.S. economic and diplomatic assurances while dramatically reducing methane pollution. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), two-thirds of these cuts could be achieved at no net cost by actions as simple as closing hatches or tightening valves.

If operators are sincere in their stated desire to stave off a global energy crisis, they would be keeping their valuable, increasingly expensive assets in the pipe. But the Biden administration, rightly, isn’t waiting for producers to act of their own goodwill. Last fall, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new methane standards that will apply to nearly 1 million wells across the country, requiring operators to drastically reduce methane waste.

What’s more, the proposed rule focuses primarily on larger oil and gas operations. But new research reveals that low-production wells that produce just 6 percent of the nation’s oil and gas are responsible for half of the industry’s methane emissions.

The EPA should upgrade its proposals to cover these high-polluting sites. It should also do more to curtail the practice of routine flaring and to incorporate emissions monitoring from community groups into the standards, which will speed up the process of fixing major leaks that harm people living near these facilities.

The government also needs to curtail methane waste on its own property. The Bureau of Land Management should end the venting and flaring of methane for oil and gas companies operating on federal and tribal lands, where an estimated $400 million in natural gas is lost annually at taxpayers’ expense – wasted gas could meet the needs of 2.1 million households for a year.

Oil companies ought to be cheering for such commonsense policies, which would save them money and boost their operational efficiency. Many are paying lip service to methane reductions, but evidence for real-world action to make good on their pledges is sorely lacking. It’s past time that they walked the walk.

Taking action to end methane leaks, venting and flaring at oil and gas operations offers a win-win-win for producers, the planet and the public. It will help regular people make ends meet, deny Russian President Vladimir Putin fossil fuel revenues, and support the urgent goal of protecting the climate. The rewards are there for the taking.

Mark Brownstein is senior vice president of energy at Environmental Defense Fund.

Tags Climate change Energy EU Global warming Joe Biden Russia Ukraine war

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