Biden can meet EU gas supply and climate commitments by ending methane leaks
Russia opened a new front in its energy war with Europe last week as Russian gas company Gazprom moved to completely cut off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria and threatened to do the same with the others. This reinforces the urgency of the Biden administration’s new commitment to replace Russian gas in Europe with liquefied natural gas (LNG) produced in the United States. But the administration’s aim to become the EU’s new gas supplier is not without its challenges.
The announcement follows another major warning from top climate scientists to break our dependence on fossil fuels, raising fears that US LNG exports are at odds with the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Fortunately, we can make progress on both of these challenges with a relatively simple improvement: capturing the mind-boggling amount of natural gas – aka methane – wasted by US oil and gas producers each year.
Operators reject at least 35 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year, enough to supply more than 17 million homes. The most egregious waste is flaring, which simply ignites excess gas because producers feel it is too difficult to capture. In other cases, they evacuate or escape freely into the atmosphere without being burned.
The problem is that methane is a potent greenhouse pollutant, with more than 80 times the short-term warming power of carbon dioxide. Methane emissions from fossil fuel operations, agriculture and other industries are responsible for more than a quarter of current warming.
Our calculations show that proven, technically feasible solutions to mitigate leaks and end routine flaring could bring more than half of Europe’s promised LNG by 2030, honoring US economic and diplomatic assurances while dramatically reducing methane pollution. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), two-thirds of these reductions could be achieved at no net cost by actions as simple as closing hatches or tightening valves.
If operators were sincere in their stated desire to avert a global energy crisis, they would keep their valuable and increasingly expensive assets in the pipe. But the Biden administration, understandably, is not 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 one million wells across the country, requiring operators to significantly reduce methane waste.
Additionally, the proposed rule focuses primarily on large oil and gas operations. But new research reveals that low-production wells that produce just 6% of the country’s oil and gas are responsible for half of industry’s methane emissions.
The EPA should update its proposals to cover these highly polluting sites. It should also do more to reduce the practice of routine flaring and 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 must also reduce methane waste on its own property. The Bureau of Land Management should end methane venting and flaring for oil and gas companies operating on federal and tribal lands, where an estimated $400 million of natural gas is lost each year at taxpayer expense – the wasted gas could meet the needs of 2.1 million households for a year.
Oil companies should encourage these common-sense policies, which would save them money and increase their operational efficiency. Many pay lip service to methane reductions, but evidence of real action to deliver on their promises is sorely lacking. It’s high time they stepped up.
Taking action to end methane leaks, venting and flaring in oil and gas operations is a win-win situation for producers, the planet and the public. It will help ordinary people make ends meet, deprive Russian President Vladimir Putin of fossil fuel income and support the urgent goal of protecting the climate. The rewards are there for the taking.
To mark Brownstein is Senior Vice President of Energy at Environmental Defense Fund.