With all eyes on this year’s climate negotiations at COP28, the United States took a major step forward on climate action by announcing new emissions standards designed to slash planet-warming methane pollution from the crude oil and natural gas industry.
Nearly 1 million public comments shaped the final rule, developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which aims to deeply cut the nation’s “super-pollutant” methane emissions. The new rule requires equipment upgrades and regular inspections against leaks. It includes both New Source Performance Standards for new sources, as well as Emissions Guidelines to assist states in developing plans to cut methane emissions from existing sources.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced that the new rule would prevent an estimated 58 million tons of methane emissions from 2024 to 2038. That’s the equivalent of 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide — nearly as much as all the carbon dioxide emitted by the U.S. power sector in 2021.
This new rule positions the U.S. as a global leader in using both policies and regulations to slash methane emissions, Furthermore, it will lend credibility to U.S. efforts toward the 155-country Global Methane Pledge, which commits to cut global methane emissions by 30% from 2020 levels by 2030.
Here are five reasons this new methane emissions rule is a significant step in U.S. and global efforts to combat climate pollution:
1) Reducing Methane Yields Climate Benefits Quickly
Methane traps more than 80 times as much heat as carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame, and most of it dissipates in the atmosphere within only a decade, whereas carbon dioxide lingers for centuries. As a result of these differing lifespans, sharp reductions in methane pollution can have a more immediate impact on reducing global average temperatures, with significant benefits evident in the short term.
Experts note that reducing methane pollution is one of the most important near-term actions we can collectively take to achieve the international climate targets set under the Paris Agreement, while simultaneously buying time to accelerate efforts to decarbonize the global economy.
2) The New Methane Rule Goes Far Further than Previous Regulations
The Obama administration was the first in the U.S. to set standards expressly targeting methane emissions from new oil and gas production sources. The Biden administration’s rule goes a step further and includes notable firsts in its effort to dramatically slash methane at both new and existing sources.
The final rule requires oil and gas companies to monitor for leaks and repair them at production sites, which often go undetected in remote locations. Instead of relying on the existing system of modeling and estimates, the rule encourages the use of alternative detection technologies, including aerial surveys and continuous monitoring, as well as innovation pathways as these technologies continue to evolve. This embracing of technological innovation parallels other new deals announced at COP28 to use drone-based methane detection and measurements to stem leaks.
In addition to halting leaks, the industry must phase out “routine flaring” that burns off excessive methane at oil and gas wells through a near-total ban at newer facilities (except in emergencies). A recent study by the University of Michigan showed flaring is responsible for 5 times more methane emissions than previously thought in the scientific community, confirming the importance of curtailing this emissions source. Oil and gas companies will have two years from the rule’s enactment to retrofit operations before the ban takes effect.
Another notable first-time inclusion is that this rule applies to older oil and gas infrastructure (such as wells, storage tanks, and compressor stations built prior to 2015), which were previously unregulated emission sources. A rule that covers new and old equipment alike is a critical element that ensures the widest range of emissions sources are tracked and reduced.
3) Reducing Methane Produces Public Health Co-Benefits
According to EPA forecasts, significant reductions in hazardous air pollutants and smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs) will result from this new rule as well. From 2024 to 2038, stricter methane standards are expected to cumulatively slash those two classes of pollutants from the oil and gas industry by 47%, compared to what they would be without the new rule. More specifically, emissions of VOCs will drop by 16 million tons, and emissions of hazardous air pollutants by 590,000 tons. These reductions translate into myriad additional public health benefits including averting thousands of early deaths, heading off 97,000 cases of asthma symptoms, and preventing 35,000 lost school days a year.
4) New Methane Rules Reflect a Truer Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases
In conjunction with the methane rule, EPA also released updated estimates of what are called the “social cost of greenhouse gases,” including new estimates for the social cost of carbon (SC-CO2), methane (SC-CH4), and nitrous oxide (SC-N2O).
These economic estimates, used by the U.S. government to calculate the benefits of reducing climate pollution as well as the cost of not taking action, are significant in two ways. First, the new estimates nearly quadruple the estimated cost of carbon dioxide first established under the Obama administration ($42 per metric ton of carbon dioxide) to $190 per ton, which places a serious and comparable price on the true costs of fossil fuel pollution to society. Furthermore, experts suggest these new estimates may result in stronger climate rules and regulations going forward, as the impacts of not taking action can be more clearly seen.
Despite using the latest data and modeling to arrive at these higher social costs, even EPA acknowledges that the resulting SC-GHG estimates likely underestimate potential damages from unchecked greenhouse gas pollution.
5) Strong Action from the U.S. Can Galvanize Global Momentum on Methane
Announcing this strong, final rule on the global stage was a critical step for the United States to inspire other nations to follow suit on reining in methane pollution. Combined with a methane fee passed in the Inflation Reduction Act, this new rule could become a key lever for the Biden administration to inspire other major methane emitters to take action. In fact, several new countries joined the Global Methane Pledge during the first week of COP28, with 155 governments now committed to the global target of cutting methane pollution at least 30% by 2030. In addition to governmental pledges, 50 oil and gas companies signed onto the Oil and Gas Decarbonization Charter, pledging to cut methane emissions and end routine flaring by 2030 to reduce their methane intensity by 80-90% by 2030. These 50 companies represent 40% of global oil and gas production, and notably include 30 national oil companies, which have not previously taken bold actions to address their methane emissions.
Melanie Robinson, WRI’s global climate program director, said that it was “encouraging that some national oil companies have set methane reduction targets for the first time, but voluntary commitments from the oil and gas industry will never foster the level of ambition necessary to tackle the climate crisis,” necessitating government regulations.
A Full Slate of U.S. Climate Action
When this new methane rule is evaluated alongside key legislative accomplishments like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021, the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, we can see a fuller picture of the impact these policies will have on cleaning the air, addressing the climate crisis and ensuring a livable future.
At the same time, reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, while essential, must not provide an excuse for increasing oil and gas production and exports. These activities are simply not compatible with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) and keeping some of the worst climate impacts at bay. Strong federal rules to reduce emissions from passenger and heavy-duty vehicles and power plants — along with a corresponding policy to phase out fossil fuel production — will be needed next year to cement President Biden’s climate leadership legacy.
Shannon Wood and Christina DeConcini also contributed to this article.