Methane Leaks Globally Rise Dramatically Despite COVID-Related Slowdowns

Flare, Bayport Industrial District, Harris County, Texas      Photo: Jim Evans, Wikimedia CC

In 2020, oil and gas use is down but methane leaks are up dramatically during the same time period according to a study by the energy data firm Kayrros, Reuters and The Washington Post reported.  Oil and gas companies had pledged to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, but they appear not to have not done it during the oil price slump because they cannot afford the cost to retrofit and conduct maintenance of infrastructure to prevent leaks, venting, and flaring.  Kayrros determined by examining satellite imagery that methane leaks globally increased by nearly a third over the same period in 2019, to over 5000 major leaks. The biggest methane hotspots were found in Algeria, Russia and Turkmenistan rose by more than 40%, above the overall global increase of 32%.

Why This Matters: Methane is a highly damaging greenhouse gas in its first 20 years after being emitted — it’s 80 to 90 times more potent than carbon dioxide during that time period.  And what did the Trump Administration do?  In August it loosened regulations limiting methane leaks — the U.S. is already one of the top methane-leaking countries.  It’s time to fix these leaks, which Vice President Biden proposes to do. As Antoine Rostand, president of Kayrros, put it “gas that leaks methane is as bad as coal.”

U.S. Methane Leaks

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) loosened the methane rules “effectively freeing oil and gas companies from the need to detect and repair methane leaks” according to The New York Times. EPA Chief Andrew Wheeler said at the time that they had been working hard to make good on President Trump’s promise “to cut burdensome and ineffective regulations for our domestic energy industry” that President Obama put in place, which they claim are unduly burdensome to businesses.  Many questioned EPA’s assumptions about the costs and benefits of the regulation –the agency stated that the rule rollback will achieve economic benefits of roughly $100 million a year through 2030 while leading to the release of about 850,000 tons.  But environmental groups argued then that the amount of methane leaking in the U.S. is much greater than the agency admitted at the time — which the Kayrros report validates.

Why Rein In Methane

According to scientists, the importance of reining in methane has become far greater as we learn of the sheer amount of methane leaking — it is much more than previously thought.  The European Union, which is the world’s biggest gas importer, announced last week that it is considering putting in place a binding methane emissions standards for the natural gas it buys. So why are the leaks increasing?  It’s a pure consequence of cost-cutting,” Kayrros President Antoine Rostand told Reuters. “Such increases in methane emissions are concerning and in stark contradiction to the direction set in the Paris Agreement of 2015 (to keep global warming below 1.5 degree Celsius),” he said.  There are millions of abandoned wells in the U.S., and capping them and their methane leaks has broad bipartisan support, in addition to the backing of Vice President Biden.

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

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