There is reason for hope on federal methane policy next year as we all seek to turn the page on a devastating and traumatic 2020.
Right now, the Trump administration’s senseless and unconscionable attack on effective rules to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry is being challenged in federal court, and the Biden administration will rightfully treat the climate crisis as an existential threat, not a hoax.
This time next year representatives from across the globe will be returning from the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, postponed by a full year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
COP26 should be an ambitious time for the United States to announce new commitments toward avoiding the worst effects of climate change. Luckily, by COP26, the United States will have reentered the Paris Climate Agreement in conjunction with President-elect Joe Biden’s goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Since 2013, as my interest and knowledge about the environment has grown, I’ve also become aware of methane’s destructive greenhouse gas effect. Methane can come from our nation’s energy and agricultural practices, but one less obvious source are “orphan wells.”
Orphan wells are oil and gas wells which were abandoned for various reasons. Once abandoned, many were not properly capped, leading to methane and carbon dioxide leaks. According to a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report, the United States has about 3.2 million abandoned U.S. oil and gas wells, about one-third of them capped.
EPA estimates the wells emitted roughly 218 kilotons of methane in 2018, the latest year measured. This number could be much higher due to incomplete data.
The Earthworks Methane Misinformation Scorecard shows that oil and gas company commitments on climate have failed to translate into significant climate action. The research tracks promises to cut methane and tackle climate from 8 major oil and gas companies and compares them to actions taken by those same companies to reduce climate pollution.
At present, it seems clear that a Biden Presidency is imminent and, while I’m sure he is receiving lots of advice on energy and the environment, much of it unwanted, I will take this opportunity to put in my ten cents worth. (Used to be two cents, but, inflation.)
It’s undeniable that if we have any chance of confronting the climate crisis, we have to transition away from reliance on coal, oil and gas. That includes phasing out both our supply and demand for fossil fuels.
Yet in spite of this unmistakable reality, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham — both self-proclaimed climate champions — want to keep their states dangerously reliant on oil and gas extraction. Both governors need to wake up and acknowledge the fact that they can’t have it both ways.
In a recent op-ed by the governors, they excoriated the Trump administration for rolling back climate safeguards. At the same time, they extolled the oil and gas industry and fracking in their states, citing initiatives to reduce methane — a potent greenhouse gas — from the oil and gas industry.
This summer, as massive wildfires raged across the west, destroying towns and cities and forcing hundreds of thousands of Americans to evacuate their homes, the Trump Administration finalized its latest environmental rollback, repealing regulations designed to reduce methane pollution from oil-and-gas wells. The consequences of this rollback will be dire. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, more than 80 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it is emitted. Oil-and-gas operations release vast quantities of this super-pollutant, along with smog-forming fumes and cancer-causing toxics also present in raw natural gas.
Across the country and the world, there are an estimated 29 million abandoned oil and gas wells leaking methane and other contaminants into ground water and the atmosphere. Despite this, we continue to poke more holes in the Earth, making more wounds that never heal.
An abandoned well is an open straw from the surface down to fossil fuel-bearing rock, often passing through freshwater aquifers. The only thing stopping ground water contamination is a bit of steel and concrete that was put there when the well was completed, often decades ago. It is hot and salty at the bottom of a well. Perfect conditions for corrosion of steel and degradation of concrete. Once that happens, and it always will, channels of contamination open to the freshwater aquifers that we use for drinking and crop irrigation.