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Methane key to coal reductions

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Will the United States’ energy revolution hurt the planet or help it? Will fracking for natural gas make fighting climate change harder or easier? Can the United States meet its goal of cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent of 2005 levels by 2020? The answer to all of these crucial questions could depend on a colourless, odorless gas that shows up all over the place.

The substance is methane, the primary component in natural gas. Methane rises from landfills, escapes from coal mines, exits from cows’ posteriors, seeps out of drilling sites and leaks from the pipes that transport the fuel to large power plants and countertop stoves. Burning methane produces about half the heat-trapping carbon dioxide as burning coal, the greatest climate villain of the fossil fuels. But, uncombusted, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas in its own right, a heat-trapper many times more potent than carbon dioxide. In the long term, carbon dioxide is the major worry, because methane does not linger and accumulate in the atmosphere the way carbon dioxide does. But the continuing release of large amounts of methane is still a big problem — accounting for about a tenth of the country’s greenhouse emissions, a proportion that could well rise without more effort to reduce it. Methane emissions can also foul local air, encouraging the formation of harmful ozone.

Since energy companies began extracting large amounts of methane from unconventional natural gas deposits using hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, the country has needed a strategy to maximize the amount of methane that is burned rather than released. Now, finally, U.S. President Barack Obama is building one.

The White House’s approach, announced late last month, relies in part on various initiatives the administration was already developing, such as the U.S. Interior Department requirements to capture methane emissions at drilling sites on federal land. This year, Interior will look at collecting and selling coal mine methane, the Environmental Protection Agency will work on landfills and various federal agencies will encourage reductions in agriculture, the sector representing the largest share of methane emissions.

Critical to making natural gas a decent alternative to coal in the emissions-heavy electricity sector, though, are new rules on tightening up drilling and transportation so that less methane escapes on its way from the ground to power plants. The EPA will start the process of considering new rules on oil and gas firms, for implementation by 2016. Mandates need not be onerous: Energy companies would be able to sell the gas they prevented from escaping. That is why, in the meantime, they should not wait for federal requirements to shore up their systems. The president’s plan is not perfect. For example, it does not foresee requiring much to be done about natural gas transportation networks, even though some in this country are extremely leaky. States will have to do some of the regulatory work themselves, a process some have started. Colorado just passed wide-ranging rules on the natural gas industry there, in a deal struck between the government, environmentalists and energy companies. As the federal government writes its rules, and, with luck, as states do their part, these groups should keep that productive approach in mind, acknowledging that there are overlapping interests in doing the right thing.

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