The pollution the EPA doesn’t count
In international climate negotiations, “measuring, reporting and verification” has been a mantra for the United States going back 20 years. So much so that climate negotiations have become gridlocked when the U.S. insisted on talking about how to verify pollution reductions before the discussing and agreeing on the pollution cuts themselves. Going into last year’s climate talks at COP26, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the talks must produce a “new level of transparency and accountability.” And last week Kerry wrapped up a speech to the Council of Foreign Relations by saying “We have to hold ourselves accountable, and everyone else everywhere.” Given this history, the U.S. focus on methane emissions at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh is particularly ironic. Because, when it comes to measuring and verifying methane emissions, the Emperor has no clothes.
The failure of the U.S. to properly account for the methane pollution from U.S. oil and gas operations has been suspected for over a decade. But in the last several years, a wave of over 40 academic studies has emerged documenting a massive under count of the methane pollution in the U.S. oil and gas sector, all the way from well heads to stove tops, power plants and LNG export terminals. Researchers have found that some segments of the production and transmission system produce emissions that are 5 times the formal U.S. count. A conservative summary of all the new data finds that total methane emissions from U.S. oil and gas operations are at least twice the U.S. EPA count and twice what the U.S. reports to the UNFCCC under the terms of the Paris Climate Agreement.
This under count has been affirmed by the U.S. National Academies. A recent U.S. Congressional investigation into the under count found that the EPA counts are even lower than the estimates found in the internal records of the oil and gas industry. The failure to recognize the rising tide of methane pollution by U.S. oil and gas operations began under the Obama Administration and became particularly problematic under the Trump Administration which responded by lowering the EPA estimate even further(!). To date the Biden Administration has sat on its hands, prompting Congressional calls to the EPA to fix the problem.
The under count is more than a transparency issue. The increase in U.S. methane pollution hidden by the EPA effectively erases much of the carbon pollution reduction claimed by the U.S.A. Since carbon pollution in the U.S. peaked in 2005, emissions have decreased by about 20% ( i.e. down 7% from 1990 levels). However at least half of that reduction was secured by switching from coal-fired power to gas-fired power. Switch from coal to gas can secure a net reduction in carbon pollution (even though it’s still half as bad). But the math only works if methane leaks are held to an absolute minimum. Instead methane has been spewing from the U.S. oil and gas sector. Given that methane pollution is 80 times more potent than CO2 pollution, these leaks are no less than a climate catastrophe.
There is some hope that the methane regulations currently working their way through the Biden Administration will address many of these methane leaks. But the devil will be in the roll out. Industry has already learned to game another recent methane rule to report only a fraction of their methane pollution to the EPA. But even if the coming rules somehow manage to stop every leak, they won’t make up for the past 20 years of methane pollution.
Transparency does matter. And one can see why by looking at the U.S. where the lack of transparency has hidden massive river of methane pollution. Coming into this COP Secretary Kerry told the world that the U.S. has to hold itself accountable and everyone else. In this instance, the U.S. might start by being honest about methane pollution from the U.S. oil and gas industry. Leadership begins at home.