Thirteen countries agreed yesterday to join a global plan proposed by the Bush administration to curb methane emissions by capturing the greenhouse gas and using it as an energy source before it is released into the atmosphere.
Methane ranks second to carbon dioxide among human-generated contributors to global warming: Carbon dioxide accounts for 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, methane for about 16 percent. The administration pledged to spend as much as $53 million over the next five years to encourage companies to provide participating countries with technologies that can trap the gas and make it available to power utilities, private homes and even pottery kilns.
In the United States, most methane comes from decomposing trash in landfills, though it also escapes during mining operations and drilling for natural gas. There are 370 landfills from which companies recover methane and convert it into fuel, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
James L. Connaughton, who leads the White House Council on Environmental Quality, predicted that by 2015 the effect of reducing methane emissions would be equivalent to taking 33 million cars off the road. China, India, Japan, Mexico and Russia are among the countries that agreed to participate.
"It's a big deal because we're focusing on an unappreciated opportunity to significantly reduce one of the most potent greenhouse gases," Connaughton said. "We know how to do it, we know we can do it, and we know what the results will be."
Some scientists who have questioned Bush's climate-change policies praised the "methane to markets" initiative as a practical effort to avert further warming. James Hansen, who directs NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and just published a paper suggesting that curbs on methane and chlorofluorocarbon emissions can offset considerable carbon dioxide pollution, called the program "a great idea."
On Capitol Hill, however, debate continued yesterday over the administration's resistance to mandatory limits on carbon dioxide emissions. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who will relinquish his chairmanship of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee once Congress adjourns this month, conducted a hearing and called Bush's climate-change policy "disgraceful."
In testimony, the deputy associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Ghassem Asrar, said the United States should ratify the Kyoto Protocol's restrictions on carbon emissions "as soon as possible." Bush rejected the treaty soon after taking office in 2001, saying the restrictions would cost U.S. jobs and calling for voluntary measures and additional research.