The Biden administration unveils plan on methane from oil and gas industry, but major powers fail to agree on rapid reductions in the use of fossil fuels

Lee YaronReuters Glasgow

Nov. 2, 2021 7:51 PM

U.S. President Joe Biden at the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, on Tuesday.
U.S. President Joe Biden at the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, on Tuesday.Credit: Erin Schaff / POOL / AFP

GLASGOW – Leaders at the COP26 global climate conference in Glasgow have pledged to stop deforestation by the end of the decade and slash emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane to help slow climate change.

The inability of major powers so far to agree more broadly on rapid reductions in the use of fossil fuels, the main cause of man-made global warming, has upset the poorer, smaller countries likely to suffer its worst effects.

Surangel Whipps Jr, president of Palau, a Pacific state of 500 low-lying islands under threat from rising sea levels, told the leaders of the G20 industrial powers in a speech: “We are drowning and our only hope is the life-ring you are holding.”

More than 100 countries have joined a U.S.- and EU-led effort to slash emissions of methane by 30 percent by 2030 from 2020 levels.

Israel, according to an American statement, has joined the initiative, but an Israeli official said it was not considering a change in policy regarding methane emissions, nor was the issue addressed during Prime Minister Bennett’s discussions in Glasgow.

A methane gas pipeline in Irvine, California.
A methane gas pipeline in Irvine, California.Credit: Mike Blake / Reuters

The source, a member of the Israeli delegation, told Haaretz that there was no target or timetable for a plan regarding cutting emissions, but that the National Security Council would be meeting the coming days to weigh declaring a climate emergency. 

The official claimed it was “the first time” the climate crisis is being taken seriously in Israel.

Methane is more short-lived in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide but 80 times more potent in warming the earth. Cutting emissions of the gas, which is estimated to have accounted for 30 percent of global warming since pre-industrial times, is one of the most effective ways of slowing climate change.

The Global Methane Pledge, first announced in September, now covers emissions from two-thirds of the global economy, according to a U.S. official.

Among the new signatories was Brazil – one of the world’s biggest emitters of methane. The pledge now includes six of the world’s 10 biggest methane emitters: the United States, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Mexico.

China, Russia, India and Iran, also top-10 methane emitters, have not signed up. Those countries were all included on a list identified as targets to join the pledge, first reported by Reuters.

Also on Tuesday, the Biden administration also unveiled a plan to slash emissions of the greenhouse gas methane from oil and gas operations as part of its strategy to crack down on climate change, drawing cautious support from both environmental groups and drillers.

The announcement coincided with the UN conference in Glasgow, where the United States, the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, is seeking to reclaim leadership on the world stage by demonstrating tangible steps to curb emissions at home.

U.S. President Joe Biden has set a target to slash greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent by 2030 but is struggling to pass climate legislation through a deeply divided Congress, making policies by federal agencies more crucial.

Lost forests

In 2020, the world lost 258,000 sq km (100,000 sq miles) of forest – an area larger than the United Kingdom, according to WRI’s Global Forest Watch. The conservation charity WWF estimates that 27 football fields of forest are lost every minute.

More than 100 national leaders pledged to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by the end of the decade, underpinned by $19 billion in public and private funds to invest in protecting and restoring forests.

The agreement vastly expands a commitment made by 40 countries as part of the 2014 New York Declaration of Forests, and promises more resources.

Climate activists from the Ocean Rebellion group demonstrate outside a refinery and petrochemicals plant in Grangemouth, Scotland, during the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference.
Climate activists from the Ocean Rebellion group demonstrate outside a refinery and petrochemicals plant in Grangemouth, Scotland, during the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference.Credit: Ben STANSALL / AFP

“Let’s end this great global chainsaw massacre by making conservation do what we know it can do and deliver long-term sustainable jobs and growth as well,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.

COP26 aims to keep alive a receding target of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels to avert still greater damage from the intensified heatwaves, droughts, storms, floods and coastal damage that climate change is already causing.

Under the agreement, 12 countries pledged to provide $12 billion of public funding between 2021 and 2025 for developing countries to restore degraded land and tackle wildfires.

At least $7.2 billion will come from private sector investors representing $8.7 trillion in assets under management, who also pledged to stop investing in activities linked to deforestation such as cattle, palm oil and soybean farming and pulp production.

Brazil, which has cleared vast swathes of the Amazon rainforest, did make a new commitment on Monday to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030, compared with a previous pledge of 43 percent.

And Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the first time set out a target date for India, heavily reliant on coal, to reduce its carbon emissions to a level it can absorb, albeit only in 2070 – 20 years beyond the UN’s global recommendation.

‘Timing is critical’

At the center of the U.S. plan to tackle methane domestically is an Environmental Protection Agency proposal that will for the first time require oil and gas operators to aggressively detect and repair methane leaks. Oil and gas operations account for a third of methane emissions.

“The timing of this is critical. As we speak, world leaders are gathering right now in Glasgow and they are looking to the United States for true leadership,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan told Reuters in an interview. “This proposal is absolutely bold, aggressive and comprehensive.”

Specifically, the proposal will require companies to monitor 300,000 of their biggest well sites every three months, ban the venting of methane produced as a byproduct of crude oil into the atmosphere, and require upgrades to equipment such as storage tanks, compressors, and pneumatic pumps.

The rules will most likely take effect in 2023 and will be aimed at slashing methane from oil and gas operations by 74 percent from 2005 levels by 2035, an amount equivalent to the emissions created by all U.S. passenger cars and planes in 2019, according to the summary.

While the United States has never before proposed to regulate methane emissions from existing sources, the Obama administration in 2016 introduced curbs on methane emissions from new oil and gas infrastructure.

Those regulations, which were weaker than the new EPA proposals, were scrapped by former President Donald Trump before being reinstated earlier this year by Congress.