Methane is many times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. It’s not mentioned as often when considering the greenhouse effect behind the climate crisis because it’s released in comparatively low volumes and will gradually degrade over time. But methane’s potency means that even at low volumes it definitely makes a significant contribution to global warming. That was a big part of the reason that, under President Obama, regulations were set in place to limit the amount of methane that oil and gas companies were allowed to emit, especially by venting wells in areas where capturing all the methane doesn’t happen to be convenient.
But those regulations were some of the first to be rolled back under Donald Trump. Trump proudly took all caps off the ability of fossil fuel producers to vent methane into the atmosphere. Producers and their supporters in Congress have tried to wave away any potential impact from venting — after all, methane is natural gas, and natural gas has value, so how much could companies really be spilling? The answer, as revealed in a report from The New York Times, is absolutely staggering.
In just a few hours of flying over Texas sites with a small plane, the Times identified hundreds of sites whose level of methane production puts them in the category of “super emitters.” The leaks came not just from wells, but from storage facilities, pipelines, and every stage of natural gas production. Since fracking generated a surprise boom in natural gas production two decades ago, the level of methane in the atmosphere has been increasing. Even though that change corresponded almost exactly with increased production, oil and gas companies have pretended to ignorance over the source of the methane. But it’s clear that methane is leaking in massive amounts.
In fact, so much methane is being leaked at such rates that it could be argued that the move from coal to natural gas as the largest source of electricity in the United States has actually created more damage to the climate. But it’s hard to be sure, because so little of this loss is actually measured. And if Trump gets his way, companies will not longer be required to even monitor for methane loss.
While scientists can easily detect that overall methane levels are rising, tracking that methane back to sources can be very difficult. Even when satellite data or information from aircraft helps to identify a methane “plume” on the surface, the source of that gas can be any one of thousands of wells, hundreds of storage facilities, or anywhere in miles of pipeline. Tracking the methane to a specific source can be all but impossible, especially in areas of high production.
Producers are supposed to seek permission and obtain permits before releasing significant quantities of methane. But, safe in the knowledge that tracking back a massive one-time release is almost impossible, many companies simply skip that step. They know they can release a blast that’s equivalent to the environmental impact of running a city, and feign ignorance if anyone comes knocking. That’s why the critical factor is forcing companies to measure the methane themselves by requiring monitors on wells, takes, and other facilities. Only by having those monitors on site, and having them regularly inspected, can there be any hope of identifying both accidental leaks and intentional venting.
Naturally, that’s exactly the requirement that Trump has already weakened, and is seeking to remove completely. Lobbyists for oil and gas were some of the biggest contributors to Trump’s campaign, his inaugural slush fund, and his 2020 PAC. It was no coincidence that his first Secretary of State came straight from the offices of Exxon.
But gas companies aren’t all like Gordon Sondland. They don’t care of their contributions earn them keen ambassadorships. They just want to be left to make maximum money … by doing maximum damage.