Sincerity is Subject to Proof: Global Methane Pledges, Markets, and Regulations

Compliance with and enforcement of new regulations, development of ubiquitous global emissions monitoring, and rigorous, transparent market standards will determine whether or not recent methane emissions developments mark a real turning point in the fight against climate change.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties to the Convention, COP28 for short, is taking place through mid-December—somewhat incongruously, in the United Arab Emirates, the seventh-largest oil producer in the world and the third largest in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Despite that and other incongruities, essential climate actions on methane emissions from the oil and gas sector were announced at COP28 that hold the promise of greatly reducing near-term warming.

Methane is a powerful, heat-trapping greenhouse gas that’s the second biggest contributor to human-caused global warming after carbon dioxide. Over a 20-year period, methane is about 80 times more potent than CO2 at forcing climate warming. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), methane is responsible for around 30% of the rise in global temperatures since the industrial revolution.

Earlier this year, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that atmospheric concentration of methane has continued at an “alarming” rate of growth. While the exact causes are not fully understood, methane emissions from oil and gas development are a significant contributor, and could be at least twice what companies report.

IEA says that methane emissions from oil and gas operations must be the first to go in limiting warming in the near term. There has been progress on that front, leading up to and at COP28:

  • In November, the European Union agreed to impose “maximum methane intensity values” on fossil fuel imports by 2030.
  • On December 2, the United States—the world’s top producer of oil and gas— unveiled final regulations that it estimates will cut methane emissions from the domestic oil and gas industry by 80% over the next fifteen years, for the first time establishing limits on methane emissions from both new and existing oil and gas sources.
  • Two days later, Canada, the world’s fourth-largest oil-producing nation, announced draft regulations to eliminate the routine venting and flaring of oil and gas infrastructure.

EPA’s regulations are strong and comprehensive, and set the standard for the world. They incorporate the latest advances in detection technology and emissions measurement. Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund, an organization that had led impactful research on methane emissions, called the regulations “the most protective methane pollution limits on the books.”

On the heels of EPA’s announcement at COP28, fifty oil and gas companies, representing over 40 percent of global oil production, signed on to the Oil and Gas Decarbonization Charter (OGDC), committing to net-zero operations by 2050, ending routine flaring by 2030, and near-zero upstream methane emissions. Around 80% of the oil and gas sector’s methane emissions come from upstream—onshore and offshore oil and gas production—so the commitment could be a major climate advance.

The charter signing was, however, met with decidedly mixed reviews. EDF’s Krupp said the charter “could reduce methane emissions by each company signing by as much as 80 to 90%.” A statement on the charter by over 300 civil society groups was less hopeful.  EDF and partners quickly announced a well-funded global initiative to hold OGDC signers to account.

In looking at these long-overdue regulatory moves—and, especially, producer pledges—it’s good to keep in mind what President John Kennedy famously said in his inaugural address: “(S)incerity is always subject to proof.”

Whether it’s enforcing a regulatory requirement, holding producers to pledges, or designing market mechanisms, actual performance data from ubiquitous, continuous monitoring using suites of the latest detection technologies—from handheld optical devices, to aerial surveys, to satellites—are prerequisites for proof. Monitoring technology cost and ubiquity barriers have largely been overcome. Emissions estimates based on engineering calculations are no longer acceptable for emission inventories or to demonstrate compliance.

As for market designs, this excellent piece from the Center for Strategic and International Studies on how to approach lowering emissions in the global LNG trade should inform both the EU’s and the OGDC accountability initiative’s work. International frameworks must be erected that include transparent standards for emissions accounting across gas supply chains, data quality indicators, measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of emissions at national, regional, and asset levels, and independent verification.

There is urgent, unfinished work ahead on methane emissions—work that must be mindful of the IPCC’s blunt warning earlier this year: “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

John Quigley

Senior Fellow, Kleinman Center
John Quigley is a senior fellow at the Kleinman Center and previously served on the Center’s Advisory Board. He served as Secretary of the PA Department of Environmental Protection and of the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.