Blair Horner: New York Takes On The Methane Menace – More Needs To Be Done

May 22, 2017

The number one challenge facing all of us is climate change triggered by the warming of the planet.  The rising temperatures have heated the world and have already resulted in significant changes: the melting of the ice caps, famine and drought, as well as rising sea levels, and new and unpredictable weather patterns.

Despite what policymakers in Washington – who seem to act at the beck and call of the oil, gas and coal industries – say, the climate changes that the world is experiencing are primarily the result of human activities, most notably the burning of oil, gas and coal.  That’s what the world’s experts say, and they have urged that governments act to reduce the release of greenhouse gases.

And there have been some positive results – for example, the recent agreement in Paris created a policy framework to curb the use of fossil fuels.

Yet, the burning of fossil fuels is not the only greenhouse gas; another problem is the release of methane.  While carbon dioxide (CO2, the greenhouse gas emitted by the burning of fossil fuels) persists in the atmosphere for centuries, methane dramatically warms the planet for a decade or two before decaying to CO2. 

Global concentrations of methane are now growing faster in the atmosphere than at any other time in the past two decades.  There’s still far less total methane in the atmosphere than there is carbon dioxide — but molecule for molecule, methane traps far more heat.  Over a 100-year period, the emission of a given amount of methane is about 28 times as powerful when it comes to global warming as the emissions of an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide (even though the methane doesn’t stay around that long).

Methane is a difficult gas to track.  In part, because it can come from many different sources.  Those include natural sources like marshes and other wetlands.  But about 60 percent of methane added to the atmosphere every year comes from human activities. They include farming sources like cattle operations and rice paddies - the flooded farmland is a good place to grow the microbes that generate the gas.  Another human activity that releases methane into the atmosphere is fossil fuel exploration, which leaks methane from oil and gas wells during drilling.

Establishing plans to curb human activities that lead to the release of methane is an important component in the strategies to curb climate change.

New York State is taking some steps.  Last week, Governor Cuomo released a statewide Methane Reduction Plan.  According to the Plan, methane accounts for 9% of New York State greenhouse gas emissions. And, the full extent of methane emissions may be larger, as reporting about methane leaks is incomplete.  

The Plan addresses three sectors responsible for the majority of methane emissions in NY: oil and gas, landfills, and agriculture.  The Oil and Gas section of the Plan has a number of strategies to reduce emission sources from natural gas and oil storage facilities; transmission and distribution networks; and active, closed, and abandoned natural gas wells. The Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Public Service will act to: 

  • reduce methane leakage and otherwise address methane emission sources;
  • enhance reporting requirements; and
  •  improve regulatory consistency.

According to the Plan, natural gas leaks alone make up 1% of the State's total greenhouse gas emissions.  Those natural gas leaks, while not the largest factor in methane releases, are important.  The simplest way to reduce those leaks is by not building out the state’s fossil fuel infrastructure.  This includes infrastructure like pipelines which promote more extraction, compressor stations which vent and leak gas, and storage facilities which pose grave explosion risks. 

While old and current infrastructure repairs and methane mitigation efforts are important steps -- indeed, they will play a significant role in reducing methane emissions -- they must be paired with a commitment to move New York beyond fossil fuels and to invest in a clean, renewable energy future. 

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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