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'Low-hanging fruit': Oil and gas can afford to curb methane emissions, report says

NASA’s Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation mission detected a methane plume 2 miles long in New Mexico.
NASA’s Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation mission recently detected a methane plume two miles long in New Mexico. Methane has caused about 30% of the rise in global temperatures.

As methane emissions from the oil and gas sector increase worldwide and add to the climate crisis, a new report shows that existing technologies could make big emissions reductions at a cost that's a drop in the bucket for Big Oil.

The International Energy Agency's Global Methane Tracker for 2023 shows that the energy industry was responsible for 135 million tons of methane emissions last year, about 60% of which is attributed to oil and gas. The IEA counted more than 500 super-emitting events caused by oil and gas operations in 2022 alone.

Methane has about 80 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide over its first 20 years in the atmosphere, and it's caused about 30% of the rise in global temperatures. This means that, in the Mountain West, methane is fueling extreme wildfires, historic drought and other disasters.

“If companies aren't serious about tackling climate change, if they don't take action to reduce their own emissions – very importantly, including methane emissions – then we have to have a much, much faster reduction in fossil fuels,” said Christophe McGlade, who leads the IEA's energy supply unit. “There is no room in the budget for tackling climate change.”

McGlade said that in order to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius – the internationally agreed upon target – the oil and gas sector would have to reduce methane emissions by 75% by 2030.

It just goes to highlight how far off track from where we need to be if we are to get on top of this. Tackling methane is among the most important – if not the most important – thing that can be done to limit near-term global warming.
Christophe McGlade, who leads The International Energy Agency supply unit

The IEA report suggests it can be done with buy-in from the oil and gas companies worldwide as they post record profits. Less than 3% of their income last year would amount to the $100 billion investment needed to reach that 75% reduction. This would lower the long-term increase in temperature by 0.1 degrees Celsius. That might not sound like a lot, but in climate change terms, it's huge.

“If we can limit or avoid 0.1 degrees, that's the same as if we were to change all of the world's transport sector – every car, every truck, every plane, every ship," McGlade said. "If we were to immediately change those into low-emissions technologies – so electric cars or electric trucks – that would also avoid about 0.1 degrees. So action on methane is just as important as decarbonizing the entire global transport sector.”

Jon Goldstein, the senior director of the regulatory and legislative affairs team at the Environmental Defense Fund, believes there isn't a bigger bang for the buck.

“There is no lower-hanging fruit than this in the climate space,” he said. “I mean, this fruit isn't even low hanging. It's on the ground and needs to be scooped up.”

Goldstein added that many Mountain West states already have policies in place to curb emissions. In 2014, Colorado became the first state in the nation to enact methane regulations, which are now informing federal policy. New Mexico enacted new methane rules to reduce emissions last year.

“The leadership that's been shown by some of the states in this region can help show the way for the federal government as the country tries to get similar standards in place and also internationally, because it doesn't end here either,” he said.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the General Assignment Reporter and Back-Up Host for KUNC, here to keep you up-to-date on news in Northern Colorado — whether I'm out in the field or sitting in the host chair. From city climate policies, to businesses closing, to the creativity of Indigenous people, I'll research what is happening in your backyard and share those stories with you as you go about your day.
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