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From oil and gas to cows and pigs, the U.S. climate bill will slash methane emissions

If we’re talking climate action, the ball is currently in America’s court, as the U.S. climate bill within the Inflation Reduction Act has scored big points for the mass adoption of EVs, incentives for switching to solar and other sustainable options, and investment in low carbon infrastructure.

In the game of decarbonizing our grid, the bill has made several free throws into solar, wind, hydropower, batteries, and even a lay up into nuclear.

But with all of the Act’s efforts aimed at reducing carbon emissions, how much can it reduce methane emissions — especially those concentrated in disadvantaged communities?

Of the $360 billion aimed at fighting climate change, $1.5 will be allocated to promoting methane detection and measurement in the oil and gas sector.

Analysts say that the funds will be a boon for high tech companies that sell detection equipment lasers, drones, satellites and other technology to help producers spot fugitive methane emissions.

Many of these growing groups are supported by the Department of Energy. However, the provision intended to immediately decrease emissions — a fee of up to $1,500 per ton on emissions from oil and gas producers, pipeline operators, and other polluters — might have missed the mark.

As noted by Robert Kleinberg, a researcher at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy in E&E News, the charge will not apply to the entire oil and gas sector, missing about 60 percent of the industry’s emissions. Why? Regulations on methane emissions from oil and gas from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are still pending.

Why is reducing methane so important?

Despite last month’s West Virginia v. EPA Supreme Court ruling that blocked the EPA’s ability to address greenhouse gas emissions in power plants, the agency retains a clear pathway to impeding methane emissions. However, experts like Kleinberg say that the EPA’s regulations will likely remain the main factor that pushes companies to cut their emissions, as their are loopholes in the fee’s current structure.

The fight against methane emissions doesn’t get as much airtime as its primetime counterpart, carbon. Nevertheless, methane is a potent greenhouse gas that warms the planet 80-85 times faster than carbon over its first 20 years in the atmosphere.

The methane emissions from industry sources like oil and gas are surging in the U.S. and across the globe, and these emissions are responsible for roughly one third of the 1.2°C of warming since preindustrial times. These emissions have risen nearly 7 percent since 2006 and according to a recent report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the past two years saw the largest jumps yet.

These emissions have drastic affects for communities. Due rises in emissions like methane, smog levels in Texas have surged, and as the state undergoes a dangerous heatwave, air pollution has worsened. Concerns have risen over methane leaks from idle and abanadoned wells in California.

A June investigation from Associated Press found that methane emissions billowing from oil and gas in both California and Texas have gone under reported. Increasingly, experts are referring to the the leaks in California neighborhoods as a public health emergency. Methane is a “super emitter.” Nationally, the vast majority of methane is emitted from landfills and the industrial agriculture. But in the case of California, 2019 study in Nature found that 29 percent of methane emissions in the state come from oil and gas.

In the case of agricultural emissions, about a third comes from dairy and hog operations. Animal waste at these large scale farms make them methane hubs and pollution from feeding operations disproportionately impacts rural Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities in places like North Carolina, causing significant health issues and premature deaths.

A recent FootPrint Coalition interview with North Carolina Senator Sydney Batch discussed how true environmental justice in the state cannot be achieved until air and water pollution caused by hog farms and their ad rem effects are properly addressed.

The EPA has been developing regulations to control methane leaks from existing oil and gas fields separately. These regulations are expected to be finalized sometime next year. If implemented, the methane fee in the IRA’s climate bill would be the first federal tax on a greenhouse gas ClimateWire reports.

At the same time, environmentally conscious investors at major polluting companies like greenhouse gas giant Exxon Mobil and pipeline producer Energy Transfer have been pushing them to cut their emissions as a way to protect their bottom line.

The market is already driving development; experts say the incentives in the bill would encourage other companies to start monitoring their emissions and boost the detection industry, but it won’t have the same impact as EPA rules. Moreover, key questions remain: What is the plan for oil and gas leaks in the case of California and Texas, and how will the government’s climate initiative deal with industrial farm pollution in places like North Carolina?

What will the climate bill do about methane leaks from the oil and gas industry?

When passed, the congressional package will give the EPA $850 million to distribute in grants for methane monitoring and measurement. The grants will also go to plugging wells on nonfederal land or improving the “climate resilience of communities and petroleum and natural gas systems,” as the bill states. The bill would also provide $700 million to address emissions from marginal conventional wells. However, as E&E reports, the methane fee will only apply to oil and gas facilities that emit more than the equivalent of 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year, a threshold that applies to facilities responsible for about 40 percent of the industry’s emissions.

The bill relies on an existing EPA calculation method, which then relies on company counts of equipment emission estimates, counts that researchers say, should in fact, be several times higher that what’s reported.

To top it off, the fee exempts natural gas distribution systems, which operate the pipelines that connect directly to homes and businesses. If the methane fee applied to natural gas distribution facilities, they would rank third in reported methane emissions, behind onshore oil and gas production and onshore oil and gas gathering and boosting, a briefing from the Congressional Research Service said.

If passed, the fee could lay the groundwork for companies to reduce their methane emissions over the next few years. The fee would start at $900 for each ton of methane emitted in 2024 and rise to $1,500 in 2026. Facilities that come into compliance with future EPA regulations on methane pollution would be exempt from the fee, providing strong incentive for companies to comply before the agency even announces their rule.

Some analysts regard the incentive as a dangerous loophole. Former chairman of the Sierra Club Carl Pope at Bloomberg, writes that these limits must be tightened in order to truly protect the climate.

Methane doesn’t sit as long in the atmosphere as carbon, but warms the planet significantly faster in its initial years, as stated previously. Therefore, it needs immediate restriction. Methane’s impact is greatest right now. EPA’s charts show that oil and gas methane has an impact equivalent to 212 million tons of CO2, about 3 percent of total greenhouse gasses. When combining the real volume of methane leaks with its drastic warming effects, fugitive methane creates six times as much climate disruption. In the short term, stopping leaks now would constitute a much larger step toward the U.S. pledge of slashing emissions in half by 2030.

What about agricultural methane emissions?

While the IRA imposes some restrictions on methane in the oil and gas industry, explicitly, it does little about methane emissions on large animal farms, which produce just as much as oil and gas giants. Food system solutions are critical in meeting global targets, as outlined in the latest installment of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment report. Unfortunately, the IRA leaves it largely unaccounted for.

“It fails to focus on the primary levers that could truly affect emissions from agriculture and the food system—like reducing food waste, helping to shift diets, and preventing big agricultural emissions in the first place, especially methane from cattle and nitrous oxide from fertilizers and manure,” Jonathan Foley, executive director of the climate solutions network Project Drawdown, told Civil Eats.

The criticism comes as a result of the bill’s language. For example, the bill allocates money to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to “directly improve soil carbon, reduce nitrogen losses, or reduce, capture, avoid, or sequester carbon dioxide, methane, or nitrous oxide emissions, associated with agricultural production.” Models may target agricultural methane, but it's no guarantee that they will, as they have the option to be directed elsewhere. While concentrated animal feeding operations already receive money to reduce emissions from inherently emission-heavy practices, they continue to cause other environmental harms such as water pollution that affect the communities around them.

The bill’s language opens the door for the USDA’s conservation programs to prioritize project proposals that target livestock-associated methane emissions. These proposals could look like utilizing diet and feed management systems to reduce emissions. Yet, the devil is in the details, and its up to the programs to go that route. Time will tell if the IRA stands to significantly and comprehensively reduce methane emissions, whether it be with the EPA’s pending regulations for the oil and gas industry or in how the USDA choses to use funds in the agricultural sector.

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