To-Do List for Climate Change Gas Methane Is Long, Challenging … and Newsy

May 12, 2021

SEJ Issue Backgrounders banner

Methane’s global warming potential is far higher than that of carbon dioxide, making control of its emissions critical. Above, a methane leak at a power plant in Connecticut. Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Click to enlarge.

Issue Backgrounder: To-Do List for Climate Change Gas Methane Is Long, Challenging … and Newsy

By Joseph A. Davis

The colorless, odorless, flammable gas known as methane matters more and more as the world gets serious about climate change.

Once the chief component of the “natural gas” that burns in our stoves and furnaces gets into the atmosphere, it becomes a potent greenhouse gas.

In fact, it’s even more potent than the much-targeted carbon dioxide. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, methane’s “global warming potential” (a reflection not only of how much heat energy a gas absorbs but also how long it stays resident in the atmosphere) is as high as 28-36, compared to carbon dioxide’s GWP of just one.

That means methane reduction is an important part of efforts to slow climate change. And because the gas is shorter-lived than many other major greenhouse gases — in the troposphere, near Earth, it lasts just seven or eight years, eventually oxidizing into carbon dioxide and water — that short life cycle offers a great opportunity for emission controls to make a quicker impact on global warming, environmentalists say.

But currently methane resulting from human actions, by various estimates, contributes some 20 percent (or even more) of the total global warming we are experiencing today.


Methane makes headlines

Methane made news in late April when the Senate voted to repeal the Trump-administration rollback of a rule to control methane that had been issued by the Obama EPA. The House is expected to follow suit soon.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also rang alarm bells earlier in April when it reported that methane in the atmosphere was surging at a record rate to a historical high.


UNEP urges stronger action to control

methane as a key to short-term gains

in the fight against global warming.


And the importance of methane is highlighted once again in the much-anticipated and now newly released report from the United Nations Environment Programme. UNEP’s Climate and Clean Air Coalition, in the report, urges stronger action to control methane as a key to short-term gains in the fight against global warming.

Environmental journalists will find methane stories in a lot of places merely by looking for them.

The restored EPA rule, for instance, only covers methane emitted by oil and gas operations, just one of the many sources of atmospheric methane. Coal mines are another. Removal of explosive methane from mines is key to miner safety, but the gas continues to seep out long after the mines are exhausted. Without abandoned mine cleanup, it will keep coming.

A lot more comes from agricultural sources — enteric fermentation (aka cow farts, which are actually cow burps), manure ponds, rice paddies and other agricultural activities. Sewage treatment and landfills are very important methane sources.

And actually natural sources, like the decaying black muck in wetlands or on lake bottoms, are even more significant.

[Here are graphs visualizing the contributions of different methane sources nationally and worldwide].


Oil, gas methane controls are low-hanging fruit

Politically, technologically and economically, the oil and gas methane emissions controls that Congress just acted on are low-hanging fruit. Detecting and eliminating gas leaks, for the big producers, is an easily absorbable cost.

Less so for the wildcats and small players. Controlling leaks, after all, simply captures more gas for profitable sale. Today, infrared and laser imaging technology, mounted on drones, planes or even satellites, can easily find the leaks.

The oil and gas industry is divided (may require subscription) on methane controls. Gas that companies find uneconomical to recover and sell is either vented or flared. But both methods harm the climate.

What’s economical depends on lots of things, but the market price of natural gas is one key. Gas that comes as a byproduct incidental to oil production may be valued differently than gas that is the intended product of a well. Another key factor is what is known as “gathering” pipelines, which may not be easily reachable by a given well.

The larger and global gas companies have a stake in selling the idea (right or wrong) that natural gas can be a cleaner fuel providing a “bridge” to renewables. To maintain the credibility of this argument, they support pollution controls.

Wildcatters and smaller landowners who have wells do not see this benefit. They often show an anti-regulatory bias less evident among the multinational players.

The April Senate vote to erase the Trump EPA methane rollback was 52-42, which could be taken as a sign that methane controls are a less starkly partisan issue than others Congress faces. Some states, including Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Pennsylvania and Ohio, have set their own methane controls on oil and gas facilities.


Path unclear for methane control on federal lands

The Obama administration had put in place another methane rule that remains dead for now. This one, issued by the Interior Department in November 2016, only applied to oil and gas drilling on federal lands.

You might think the government would have more say-so over its own lands. But you’d be wrong.

Red states and oil states, along with the oil industry, promptly challenged this “waste prevention rule” in court, where it was defended by a less enthusiastic Trump administration. It followed a complex legal path — stayed, revised and reissued, challenged again and eventually vacated — where it stands now.

Still unclear is whether the Biden administration might revive it, possibly in another form, or whether this would even be necessary. Stay tuned and watch the Bureau of Land Management.


Agricultural methane tough to control

Agriculture is an even bigger source of methane than energy — and probably harder to control.

Enteric fermentation from cattle is not the only source (though a big one). Other ruminants (e.g., sheep and goats) produce methane as well. Swine don’t generate methane through enteric fermentation, but their urine and feces, stored in pits and ponds, certainly do.


Two-thirds of U.S. agricultural methane

comes from enteric fermentation and a

quarter from ‘management’ of animal waste.


According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 67% of U.S. agricultural methane comes from enteric fermentation and 27% from “management” of animal waste. Some also comes from crop residue burning and from rice paddies, although these sources are more important elsewhere in the world.

Politically, regulating pollution of any kind from agriculture has always been difficult. In effect, individual farmers have not really been subject to laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, although they may have been nominally in some cases.

The farm lobby is enormously powerful in American politics. You can account for much of this power by looking at the map: The states with lots of farm and ranch land have a share of senators and electoral votes much larger proportionally than their population. The filibuster helps. The farm lobby is very well organized and knows how to take advantage of this setup.

Yes, cows burp. President Biden says he wants urgently to control greenhouse gas emissions. Republicans from farm states have translated this into the accusation that Biden and the Dems “want to take away your hamburgers” (may require subscription). This of course is factually untrue; Dems have no proposals to limit meat consumption.

It has, though, resulted in many vendors branding their products “outlaw burgers.” This may say something about the politics of controlling agricultural methane emissions. Nonetheless, non-meat burgers can now routinely be found in U.S. supermarkets.

There remain other options for reducing ag methane emissions. Eating less red meat is one of them and some people have pursued this voluntarily as a lifestyle choice or a business model.


Hog waste methane gets less attention

Hog waste lagoons are another matter.

Hog waste lagoons are another source of methane emissions. Photo: Sustainable Economies Law Center, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

Many are noxious, simply because of the smell, which often assaults neighbors in rural areas who may be unable to move. That alone makes it an environmental justice issue. During hurricanes and heavy rains the lagoons may overflow (may require subscription) and pollute waterways.

The EPA does not really regulate hog lagoons under the Clean Water Act or Clean Air Act, although it has tried with poor results. In reality, whatever regulation there is is left to the states.

North Carolina, a focal point of the hog industry, does issue permits for hog lagoons. In recent years, the state has tightened its rules for the biggest hog farms. The environmental quality head who accomplished this political feat was Michael Regan, now administrator of the EPA.

But the issue of methane produced and emitted by hog waste lagoons has gotten less attention. Most hog lagoons just emit it to the atmosphere. But it is not a heavy lift to capture it (it’s as easy as covering the lagoon with black plastic), purifying it and selling it as a fuel resource. The marketers call it “biogas.”

There are plans to do this (may require subscription) in North Carolina and it seems more feasible at large scale.


Landfill methane regulation has checkered success

Municipal solid waste landfills are another important source of methane, accounting for roughly 15% of total U.S. emissions, according to EPA.

Methane is produced by the bacterial decay of biological material (typically food or yard waste) under the anaerobic conditions which eventually prevail in closed landfills.

EPA and the states do regulate landfills under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. RCRA requires landfills eventually to be covered with impermeable material like clay — which allows landfill gas (roughly 50% methane) to accumulate. Many larger landfills today already collect this gas to use or sell.

EPA does try to regulate landfill methane. But for a host of reasons, it has not gone all that well.

EPA’s actual regulation of landfill gas falls under the Clean Air Act, not RCRA. As far back as 1996, EPA issued gas control rules for large landfills, but the emphasis back then was on health-related air pollutants: volatile organic compounds and air toxics like benzene.


Challenging politics for landfill regulation

Politically, there was little appetite for federal regulation of methane from smaller landfills.

In July 2016, during the final months of the Obama administration, EPA issued new regulations aimed squarely at landfill methane as part of its climate control push.

Cut to the Trump administration. In May 2017, with a wink and a nod to the waste management industry, which opposed the landfill methane rule, EPA announced it would delay implementation of the Obama landfill methane rule. That rule then got lost in the courts and an unfriendly administration.

But then cut again to the Biden administration. The Biden EPA asked courts in March 2021 to throw out the Trump-era delays in the landfill methane rule. And, voila, in April a federal appeals court did so.

So the game is now very much back on. Stay tuned for further news.

It is always worth remembering that EPA does not send many mayors to jail. Politically, forcing municipalities to control pollution of any kind has worked better using the carrot rather than the stick.


EPA has had a landfill methane

program all along, but it has been

a kind of cheerleading and

technical coaching thing.


EPA has had a landfill methane program all along, but it has been a kind of cheerleading and technical coaching thing — er, what they call “outreach.”

One good thing about EPA’s voluntary landfill methane outreach program is that it has mapped landfill methane projects in most states, so environmental journalists can probably find one nearby to write about.

You can find more info about local landfill projects via their searchable online database.

Speaking of carrots: This might be obvious, but a new gush of federal money to support landfill methane projects via the long-awaited Biden infrastructure bill might speed things up. It hasn’t happened yet.


Taking a longer view

Another thing worth remembering is that the United States is only one nation, however large our methane emissions may be. Reducing emissions from major rice-producing countries, many in Asia, could be much harder.

Remember also that there are many “natural” sources of methane, not merely natural gas seeps.

Wetlands are a methane source we do not want to get rid of. As permafrost thaws out, one of the gases it will emit is methane. On the ocean floor, there are vast amounts of methane clathrates — frozen mixtures of ice and methane that will release gas when thawed out.

The bad news is that these sources will create a negative feedback loop, worsening methane emissions caused by warming itself.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 19. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

SEJ Publication Types: