Climate group says Biden must slash methane emissions 65% by 2025

Worker preparing to gauge oil production tanks.
U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) - Western States Division / Wikimedia Commons

In response to Monday's publication of the first part of the IPCC's Sixth Assessment Report, which United Nations Secretary General António Guterres called a "code red for humanity," environmental justice advocates demanded that U.S. President Joe Biden use his executive authority to immediately slash methane pollution as a key step in life-saving climate action.

"Biden must use all the powers available to him, including using the full power of the Clean Air Act, to cut oil and gas methane pollution 65% by 2025, and declaring a national emergency on climate to stop fossil fuel expansion," Lauren Pagel, policy director at Earthworks, said in a statement.

In its new report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that cutting carbon dioxide emissions is necessary but insufficient to avoid climate disaster. The international community must also act swiftly to stop releasing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that is playing an increasingly significant role in driving planetary heating.

Although carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere far longer, methane is up to 87 times more potent over a 20-year period, making it a key contributor to global warming in the near term. Despite the pandemic-driven shutdowns in 2020, emissions of both heat-trapping gases reached record highs last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found.

Key sources of methane pollution include industrialized animal farming, landfills, and fossil fuel extraction and leaks. Research published last year showed that coal mining, oil drilling, and hydraulic fracturing for so-called "natural" gas may be emitting up to 40% more methane than previously thought. One climate scientist said that while the study was alarming, it "shows us where we can act on climate change" right away.

Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development and a lead reviewer for the IPCC, emphasized Friday that reducing methane emissions is absolutely essential to curbing global heating, averting its most catastrophic consequences, and preventing tens of millions of premature deaths.

"Cutting methane is the biggest opportunity to slow warming between now and 2040," said Zaelke. "Cutting methane gives us time" to pursue further mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Zaelke added that policymakers must take note of the IPCC's findings on methane prior to the U.N.'s upcoming climate talks in Glasgow, which are less than 100 days away. "We need to see at COP26 a recognition of this problem, that we need to do something on this," he said.

Jane Lubchenco, deputy director for climate and environment at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said Monday that "the report draws attention to the immediate benefits of significant reductions in methane, both from an atmospheric concentration point of view, but also the co-benefits to human health from improved air quality."

In addition to being a "critical" necessity, slashing methane emissions, the U.N. has said, is "one of the most cost-effective strategies to rapidly reduce the rate of warming and contribute significantly to global efforts to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C" above pre-industrial levels, beyond which extreme weather will worsen and "tipping points" could be triggered.

While climate justice campaigners viewed the IPCC report as further evidence that human survival depends on fundamental political-economic transformation, including transitioning to a completely renewable energy system as quickly as possible, targeted measures to reduce methane pollution—through eliminating leaky pipelines, for instance—represent low-hanging fruit that can make a substantial difference today.

In June, the U.S. House passed a resolution to reinstate federal regulations on methane pollution. Although Biden and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan have pledged to enact rules that are stronger than those imposed during the Obama administration, they have yet to commit to specific goals. According to Reuters, new rules are expected to be unveiled in September.

While environmental groups celebrated the return of methane regulations in the U.S. as a major improvement following the Trump administration's rollback of rules requiring fossil fuel corporations to fix methane leaks, Earthwork's Pagel stressed in June that the Biden administration must pursue "aggressive emissions reductions now."

She reiterated that message on Monday: "A climate crisis demands emergency action."

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