The White House plans to press ahead with more executive actions to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the coming weeks, including a government-wide strategy aimed at cutting methane emissions, according to top Obama advisers.
Methane, the main component of natural gas, is about 25 times more powerful as a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide, the largest human contributor to climate change. While it largely dissipates in a few decades and there is far less of it in the atmosphere than CO2, it continues to drive global warming and the administration has been looking at how to minimize methane emissions as natural gas production expands in the United States.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, White House counselor John D. Podesta said the administration is "in the throes of finalizing" the strategy, which involves agencies including the Interior Department, Energy Department and Environmental Protection Agency.
Estimates of how much methane leaks into the atmosphere through leaky transmission pipes, flaring and other sources vary widely. Cornell University’s Robert Howarth has suggested somewhere between 3.6 percent and 7.9 percent of methane escapes during the production life cycle of shale gas; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology countered with a study saying it is just a fraction of that amount.
In a wide-ranging talk with reporters about the administration's climate plans, Podesta and Obama's top science adviser, John Holdren, said they continue to see natural gas production and use as a way to curb the nation's carbon output.
Holdren said the industry's methane emissions were "big enough" to be a target for reductions, but not large enough to nullify "the advantages of natural gas over goal in electricity generation" as well as the potential of gas to replace oil in the transport sector.
Several leading environmental groups have recently called on the administration to commit to pursuing a fossil-free energy strategy, as well as to halting liquefied natural gas exports. Obama called both of those proposals unrealistic.
"We remain committed to developing the resource and using it," Podesta said, adding later: "With all due respect to my friends in the environmental community, if they expect us to turn off the lights and go home, that's sort of an impractical suggestion."
At the same time, Podesta said the administration did not plan to accelerate liquefied natural gas exports given the crisis in Ukraine. "We don't anticipate a gas interruption," he said. "Given the way things have gone, we are obviously monitoring things closely."
While the Energy Department has given preliminary approval to half a dozen new LNG export terminals, Podesta noted the earliest the terminals would be built would be late next year.
Podesta also said the administration--which launched a new climate-data initiative Wednesday--would use its executive authority in other ways this year to address emissions linked to global warming.
"We have other cards up our sleeve, particularly in the energy space," he said.
At one point, however, Holdren acknowledged that world leaders were unlikely to meet their consensus goal of keeping the global temperature from rising no more than 2 degrees Celsius, or nearly 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels.
"It is now very challenging indeed," he said. "But what is perfectly clear is the direction in which we need to go. We need to reduce emissions."