November 26, 2013
Harry Reid (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
Harry Reid (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Terrible news on climate change: A just-released study reports that methane emissions in the United States are dramatically higher than previously thought. If true, this sharply erodes the climate advantage that natural gas holds over dirtier fuels like coal.

However, this might be less of a disaster than it appears. And filibuster reform is the reason why. Indeed, this provides a window into how changing the Senate rules can make an important difference.

The methane emissions problem can be addressed through regulation created by executive action. Now that the filibuster is broken and Democrats can get their nominees into the empty seats on the DC Circuit Court, which has jurisdiction over federal agencies, such regulations have a good chance of surviving the inevitable court challenges.

In theory, natural gas is relatively more climate-friendly because, compared to most other fossil fuels, it produces a lot more electricity for an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted. However, natural gas is mostly methane, and methane is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas in its own right, about 25 times as powerful as carbon dioxide over short time scales. Therefore, the climate advantage of natural gas depends entirely on keeping the amount of methane leakage down as the gas is extracted and piped around the country.

The current Environmental Protection Agency estimate of the amount of methane leaked is about 1.5 percent. But this new study finds the figure is much higher, more like three percent. What’s more, the new study is on a sounder footing than the EPA estimates, because it is based on actual measurements. Here’s Bobby Magill at Climate Central:

The Harvard team used actual methane emissions data gathered from towers, airplanes and other ground-level monitoring stations to calculate total methane emisions nationwide. The EPA calculates methane emissions by counting the number of cows, oil and gas wells and oil refineries in a region, then estimates total emissions based on how much methane each of those sources is expected to emit. That data is reported in the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research, or EDGAR.

What to do? Well, it’s time to start cracking down on natural gas producers (this includes a lot of farmers, by the way, but that’s another post). New EPA rules should be deployed immediately requiring all natural gas extractors to keep their emissions under 1.5 percent, backed up by rigorous measurement. Extractors won’t like it, but probably it won’t even be that expensive. And now that the filibuster is gone for normal federal judgeships, new EPA rules have a dramatically better chance of surviving to the implementation stage.

The United States is currently going through a natural gas boom due to the development of new technology, which has had the salutary effect of badly hurting the coal industry. This is why I am not as anti-fracking as many environmentalists, because coal is by far the bigger offender on climate. The worry about new rules on natural gas is that it will restore some of coal’s competitive advantage. But the answer to that is simple: deploy new anti-coal rules at the same time as the natural gas ones. That might even make renewables more cost competitive overall, which would be best of all.

It’s plausible that in 100 years, one of the key things history remembers about President Obama is whether he used the federal bureaucracy to good effect on climate change. Now that filibuster reform has likely made executive action more effective, it’s time to get moving. Unleash the EPA!