A flare burns excess gas from a plant in the Permian Basin in Loving County, Texas, in November 2019. (Photo: Angus Mordant/Reuters)
(CNN) -- U.S. President Joe Biden's administration has introduced a rule to significantly reduce methane emissions from the U.S. oil and gas industry, a planet-warming gas that scientists and climate advocacy groups have urged countries to reduce rapidly as global temperatures soar.
The announcement came amid a wave of commitments at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai on Saturday, including pledges by at least 117 countries to triple renewables by 2030. Vice President Kamala Harris also said the U.S. was going to spend another $3 billion on global climate action.
Methane, the main component of natural gas and a byproduct of fossil fuel extraction, is a potent source of pollution with a warming power more than 80 times that of carbon dioxide during its first two decades in the atmosphere. The oil and gas industry is one of the leading sources of global methane emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.
The new U.S. standard, which will be enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is expected to reduce methane emissions by nearly 80% by 2038, compared to what they would have been without the standard. The EPA estimates that about 58 million tons of methane will no longer be emitted into the atmosphere during that period, the equivalent of taking more than 300 million gasoline-powered cars off the road for a year.
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The rule will suppress methane leaks from industry in a number of ways. As an important development, it will end the routine flaring of natural gas byproduct of oil well drilling and gradually introduce an obligation to capture that gas rather than flaring it. The standard will also require rigorous monitoring of leaks in oil and gas wells and compressors, and reduce leaks in equipment such as pumps, storage tanks and controllers.
It will also rely on independent third-party monitoring (using satellites and other remote sensing technologies) to find large methane leaks.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan and White House National Climate Adviser Ali Zaidi unveiled the rule at COP28 on Saturday, a day when reducing methane emissions was a top issue and other multilateral announcements were made.
Regan said the U.S. rule signified "strong action" by the Biden administration by "significantly reducing methane emissions." The U.S. is the world's largest oil producer; Last year it extracted and sold 21% of the world's oil.
"From mobilizing billions in investments to plug orphaned wells, repair leaky pipes, and reclaim abandoned mines, to setting tough standards that will reduce pollution from the oil and gas sector, the Biden-Harris Administration is putting the full weight of the federal government into reducing harmful methane pollution," Zaidi added in a statement.
Speaking to CNN during COP28, Zaidi reiterated the need for accountability and that data on methane emissions is critical to enforcing regulations.
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"In addition to commitments and transparency, we have to get the receipts, make sure that we are making the necessary progress," Zaidi said.
Methane emissions have risen in recent years, to the surprise of scientists and energy experts, who are now advocating plugging leaks and ending gas flaring and release as simple ways to slow the pace of global warming.
Pollution experts and climate advocates told CNN that oil and gas companies have plenty of incentive to fix leaks and end most flaring, as it ultimately means they can pollute less and sell more oil and gas.
"There's a lot of opportunity," Carrie Jenks, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Law Program at Harvard Law School, told CNN. "Companies should want to reduce their leakage because that's more product. All incentives should line up here."
The EPA's plan to end routine flaring is a big step forward, said Jon Goldstein, senior director of regulatory and legislative affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, which focuses on methane pollution.
"The latest scientific studies show that torches are not only sources of waste, but also of pollution, because they don't work properly," Goldstein said. "The easiest way to end that pollution is to stop sending it to the torches in the first place. It doesn't seem logical. Why are you burning this product that you can sell?"
50 companies commit to reducing methane
Fifty major oil and gas companies, including Exxon and Saudi Aramco, signed a pledge on Saturday to reduce their methane emissions by the end of the decade, COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber and the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) said.
The new Oil and Gas Pact commits each company to reducing its methane intensity by 80 to 90% by 2030.
Recent EDF studies indicate that the world's oil and gas operations have a methane intensity of between 2 and 3 percent, or roughly the amount of methane gas released during drilling, venting or flaring, or in pipeline and compressor leaks. Companies are pledging to reduce that percentage of methane intensity to 0.2% by 2030.
The agreement also commits companies to verify by third parties that they are taking action against leaks or improper flaring, following international standards set by the Oil and Gas Methane Partnership 2.0, according to Fred Krupp, president of EDF.
"Without an ounce of exaggeration, this pact is the most important thing that will reduce the planet's temperatures in decades," Krupp said in a statement.
Because of methane's potency, scientists have insisted in recent years that rapidly reducing emissions is key to limiting the climate crisis. Rapid, large-scale efforts to reduce human-caused methane emissions could curb global warming by up to 30%, according to an EDF analysis.
Others criticized the announcement for not being ambitious enough. Murray Worthy, senior oil and gas researcher at Zero Carbon Analytics, noted that it doesn't go beyond commitments from previous years, and that "the industry still has to deliver" on those promises.
"Most importantly, it does not require companies to address the primary cause of fossil fuel emissions, which is their combustion," Worthy said in a statement.
Later, a group of organizations led by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the United Nations announced they will launch a new program to ensure that all 50 oil companies meet their promises to reduce methane leaks from their operations.
"The better we can measure problems like greenhouse gas emissions, the better we can manage them," said Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire philanthropist and former mayor of New York.
Al Jaber praised the commitment, saying it was in line with the goal of keeping the goal of the Paris Agreement within reach. But he also said it's "not enough."
"I say this with full passion and conviction, much more can be done," he said.