Reducing emissions of the super-pollutant methane could have far-reaching impact on communities, the environment, and the future.
At COP 28, the United States Environmental Protection Agency announced its final rule to cut methane pollution and other harmful air pollutants from the oil and gas sector. This is a huge win for the climate and for public health, and a testament to strong organizing by communities living on the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction. But it’s not enough.
Cutting methane is critical to meeting global climate goals.
Methane is a greenhouse gas responsible for around a third of the planet’s current warming. It’s what’s known as a short-lived climate pollutant, meaning that it hangs around in the atmosphere for twelve years as opposed to centuries. But it’s incredibly damaging—80 times more potent than carbon dioxide—so to avoid catastrophic consequences, we must cut methane alongside carbon dioxide.
The EPA rule provides significant safeguards around methane pollution from the oil and gas industry.
The oil and gas sector contributes approximately 40% of methane emissions globally attributable to human activity. So-called “natural gas” is composed of 70-90% methane; the extraction of both oil and fossil gas is plagued by leaks, flaring, and other problems that lead to unnecessary and harmful methane emissions. The International Energy Agency estimates that around 70% of methane emissions from fossil fuel operations could be reduced with existing technology—interventions that largely pay for themselves by capturing the leaked gas. The EPA rule includes leak-monitoring requirements; deploying advanced technologies, including satellites for detecting methane emissions; a zero-pollution standard for pneumatic controllers (devices that vent gas to the atmosphere); limits on flaring of associated gas; and third-party monitoring of emissions. The EPA estimates that this rule will reduce methane emissions from covered sources by 80%. That’s 58 million tons of methane eliminated from 2024-2038.
As one of the world’s largest emitters, the US has an obligation to take climate action first and fastest.
In the short term, and as long as oil and gas extraction continues, limiting methane emissions and other super-pollutants from the fossil fuel sector remains critical to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. The EPA methane rule is an important step toward doing so, and it will help the US meet its fair share of responsibility under the Global Methane Pledge. The Pledge commits countries to a 30% reduction in methane emissions by 2030 and has been signed by more than 150 countries. We hope the new rule will serve as a catalyst for other countries, especially other wealthy high-emitters, to take ambitious action on methane.
The EPA methane rule is a practical tool in the fight for social and environmental justice.
Methane is incredibly dangerous to the health of our communities. It contributes to approximately 1 million premature deaths globally every year, as well as to respiratory issues, cancer, and maternal and fetal health problems. Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) live and work near fossil fuel extraction sites in disproportionate numbers and face significant health risks, but in the US and around the world, environmental justice advocates and human rights defenders are targets for harassment and violence when they speak up. Racial justice, gender justice, and climate justice are inextricably linked; the new rule provides an opportunity to address them all.
The rule must be accompanied by robust implementation and enforcement.
States should be adequately supported to develop strong state plans. EPA standards are the floor, not the ceiling, and states should pursue even greater ambitions. The Agency requires states to conduct enhanced consultation with affected stakeholders, including the fossil fuel industry and frontline communities. At Oxfam, we know responsible consultation is critical to effective and equitable climate policy. It’s important that in these conversations industry continue to support the rule and facilitate quick implementation. Frontline, tribal, and BIPOC communities must be at the table and meaningfully engaged to ensure its success.
Ultimately, methane reductions must happen in concert with a phaseout of fossil fuels that’s both rapid and fair.
Pressure to maintain the fossil fuel status quo is bearing down from all quarters, including from the Biden Administration. Despite delivering the Inflation Reduction Act, the biggest investment in climate action in US history, the Administration continues to approve new fossil fuel projects that undermine its goals. And fossil fuel companies continue to tout methane gas as a bridge fuel, despite the fact that, thanks to leaks in delivery, its carbon emissions are similar to those of coal. The new methane rule is important, but standing alone it won’t change the course of climate history. The US is the world’s largest producer and consumer of methane gas. As long as that’s true, we will fall far short of meeting our climate goals. Our communities deserve safety, health, and dignity; to make those simple aspirations a reality, we need to join forces to achieve a just, equitable, fossil-free future.