Ensuring That the Global Methane Pledge Is More Than Just Words Won’t Be Easy

TMore than 70 countries led by the United States and the European Union, announced their formal commitment to the COP26 conference. Global Methane Pledge: A promise to reduce methane emission by 30% by 2030. Some of the world’s largest methane emitters — China, Russia, Australia — did not sign on, and the G20 failed to commit to the pledge this week. However, activists insist that the global pledge is vital.

“The power in this is that for the first time you’re going to have leaders of countries standing up saying, ‘We’re committing to reducing methane emissions in the very near term,’” said Jonathan Banks, international director of the Clean Air Task Force. Banks said that the global pledge would unlock funding from the nonprofit sector. In fact, philanthropies have already pledged to give $200 million to countries to reduce methane emissions.

Sharon Wilson, senior field advocate and a specialist in optical imaging for EarthWorks is less optimistic, but she is still positive about the pledge. “I do think the pledge is significant, because it draws global attention to a global problem,” she told me. But Wilson stresses that “a pledge is just words on paper.” Delivering actual methane reductions will be far trickier.

Methane has more than 80 times the warming potential of CO2. It’s also far more short-lived, which means tackling it quickly could delay warming, ideally long enough to get a handle on CO2 emissions. About 25% of the warming over the past decade has been caused by methane. A recent UN reportThe study found that half of the warming caused by human-caused methane emission could be prevented if they were cut by 45 per cent by 2030. The Global Methane Assessment,In May 2021, it was revealed that global warming could be kept to 1.5 degrees by the year 2030 if methane emissions are reduced by 45 percent. This is the goal of the Paris Agreement. This math also includes animal agriculture which accounts for 32 per cent of human-caused methane emission. Global Methane Pledge is applicable to all sectors but the focus has been on the fossil fuel industry. United Nations Environment Program chief Inger Andresen was quick to point out that methane reductions are not a “get out of jail free” card on climate.

It won’t be easy to ensure that the Global Methane Pledge is more than just words on paper. First, there’s the lack of specific requirements or policies; and, like every other pledge out of the COP in recent decades, the pledge lacks any sort of enforcement mechanism. And then there’s the fact that methane is notoriously underreported. How can we measure progress towards the 30 percent reduction goal without a baseline?

Since years, the oil and natural gas industry has made similar promises. It claims it is following through on its promises to lower methane emissions. To hear American Petroleum Institute President Mike Sommers speak at last week’s climate disinformation hearing in the US House of Representatives, you would have thought the API spends most of its time tackling methane emissions instead of lobbying against regulation. The truth is that the industry self reports methane emissions and does so using a formula that allows for massive underreporting.

It’s complicated, but in broad strokes: When a company buys equipment from a manufacturer, it comes with an emissions factor. And that’s where the problem begins, because emissions factors are really just estimates of the volume of pollutants a piece of equipment might release — and under the best possible conditions, when it is being perfectly maintained. Here’s the EPA describing how these estimates are made: “In most cases, these factors are simply averages of all available data of acceptable quality, and are generally assumed to be representative of long-term averages.” That’s not very precise! Oil and gas companies don’t inspect the equipment out in the field. They simply take the manufacturer’s emissions factor and multiply it by the number of machines they’ve got. So you could have a piece of equipment that’s faulty, or that’s been damaged by weather, or that’s been poorly maintained, that’s just ripping methane into the air, but it would still be reported as emitting just what the manufacturer speculated it would under the best possible circumstances. This means that actual emissions are not being measured, observed, or reported. “They get the factor from the equipment manufacturer, and they want their number to be favorable,” Wilson said. “So it starts with a favorable number, and it just gets more favorable down the line.”

A recent study from the Environmental Defense Fund found that actual methane emissions in the United States are 60 percent higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency is reporting based on the industry’s self-reported numbers. Earthworks puts the figure at close to 100 percent. Still, at least there’s SomeReporting of fossil fuel sector activities. Ranchers are not required to report their operations’ methane emissions. We might have more accurate data on this sector because the data we have was gathered by researchers and not self-reported. On the other, it’s hard to manage what you don’t even track. Despite the GOP talking point that the climate-conscious are trying to take away America’s hamburgers, there’s been very little attention at the policy level on agricultural emissions. The Global Methane Pledge does not consider any particular sector. And some big ranching countries have signed on — most notably, Brazil. But the United States seems to be largely focused on the fossil fuel industry, where it’s assumed that there are relatively easy and straightforward ways to curb methane — at least enough to deliver a 30 percent reduction this decade, according to the Global Methane Assessment.

Banks stated that he believes emerging satellite technology can solve the problem. He also said that the problem is getting better data about methane. The United States has not yet joined the Global Methane Monitoring Network. International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO), a UN Environment Program project, which was launched at Sunday’s G20 meeting in Rome and aims to offer “the world’s most comprehensive, real-time methane pollution data.” The effort leans heavily on the Oil and Gas Methane Partnership 2.0, an international framework for methane reporting that only two American companies have signed on to — neither of them an oil major. The OGMP 2.0 requires actual measurement of methane emissions across the fossil fuel supply chain, so not just upstream production but also transportation, processing, and refining — all of which come with major emissions that are often left out of the United States’ self-reporting approach. Although ExxonMobil, Chevron and other companies have publicly supported the Global Methane Pledge and made several commitments to reduce their methane emissions they have not yet adopted the OGMP 2.0.

“Without IMEO the [Global Methane] pledge risks being just a pledge,” IMEO acting head Manfredi Caltagirone told the Financial TimesThis week, Banks noted that the United States could have followed suit and urged American companies in the same vein to join the OGMP 2.0. Banks said signing on to the IMEO is “likely to be mentioned in the pledge,” which itself would go a long way toward addressing the reporting issue.

Wilson and Banks agree that reporting and data are not enough to make the pledge more than an empty promise in America. The last remaining regulation on methane in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill was just axed thanks in large part to Senator Joe Manchin. But Banks said that no matter what’s happening at the federal level, state policy can confront the methane threat. “Even during the Trump years, we made progress,” he said. “But I also think the tide has turned on this issue. I mean, there are still some gas companies fighting things, but the larger companies, they see the writing on the wall.”

Wilson has less faith than the corporations. “They’ve been making promises on methane and breaking them for a decade. I’m ready to break up with oil and gas. They don’t keep their promises,” she said. “There are voluntary measures that are recommended by the API that would save worker’s lives, and they won’t do ’em!”

Wilson, who is based in Texas, believes that state policy is only as good and effective as its enforcement, which she claims is almost nonexistent in her region. “The oil and gas industry has never been adequately regulated,” she said. “We have been calling for the EPA to step in and enforce the Clean Air Act. They can do it. But what army? It’s gonna take a small army for each state to adequately do this.”

Wilson would like to see an end of all new permits and proper regulation of existing oil-and-gas infrastructure. While the industry mostly uses the word “leak” regarding methane, implying some sort of accident, Wilson has documented time and again that the intentional release of methane is far more common. That happens when gas operations flare — i.e., burn off — gas that it does not make business sense to sell or that is “sour,” meaning that it contains hydrogen sulfide and is toxic. Companies will also vent methane — release the gas directly into the atmosphere, after a well is fracked or as a normal part of maintenance. These are not accidental releases; they’re part of the standard process of drilling for, refining, and distributing gas. “We’ll never bring levels down if the industry just keeps expanding,” she said. “The industry cannot reliably stop methane emissions — all of their available tech is not reliable. We need to stop new permits.”