The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness
The Climate 202

Oil and gas companies underreport methane leaks, House Democrats say

The Climate 202

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! Happy World Oceans Day. 🌊 

👀 Primary watch: Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's Republican primary race in Montana, which we previously covered here, is still too close to call. As of this morning, Zinke was ahead with 41.4 percent of votes compared to Montana state Sen. Albert Olszewski's 40 percent, with 80 percent of votes counted. 

Oil and gas companies underreport methane leaks, House Democrats say in report

Big oil and gas companies are underreporting their emissions from methane leaks in the Permian Basin to the Environmental Protection Agency, says a report by Democrats on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, The Washington Post's Steven Mufson scoops this morning.

The companies' internal data shows that their methane emissions in the Permian Basin, which extends from West Texas to New Mexico, “are likely significantly higher than official data, according to the report, which was exclusively provided to The Post ahead of a committee hearing today on detecting and quantifying methane leaks from the oil and gas sector.

The report warns that “a small number of super-emitting leaks” appear to account for “a very significant proportion” of overall emissions of methane, a potent planet-warming gas. For instance, a single leak experienced by one oil company may have accounted for more than 80 percent of the methane emissions that company reported to the EPA from its Permian production in 2020.

The report was written by the committee's Democratic staff using materials requested by Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (Tex.) in a December letter to the chief executives of 10 fossil fuel firms. The letter came weeks after more than 100 countries signed the Global Methane Pledge, which calls for reducing methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030, at the COP26 climate summit in Scotland.

“The United States cannot achieve its targeted reduction in methane emissions under the Global Methane Pledge without a swift and large-scale decline in oil and gas sector methane leaks,” Johnson wrote in the letter. “The existence of these leaks, as well as continued uncertainty regarding their size, duration, and frequency, threatens America’s ability to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”

The fossil fuel companies that received the missive included ExxonMobil, Occidental Petroleum, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Pioneer Natural Resources, Devon Energy and Coterra. However, the companies are anonymous in the committee's report, which does not associate the emissions data with individual firms by name.

Can Congress crack down on ‘super-emitters’?

While methane is less prevalent than carbon dioxide, it is about 80 times more effective at trapping heat than CO2 during its first decade in the atmosphere. That means reducing the number of methane “super-emitters” around the globe could be a quick and effective way to slow global warming, according to a study published in February in the journal Science.

Yet of the 10 companies that provided information to the House Science Committee, nine said they lack an internal definition of a super-emitting leak, the report says. Two said they did not think existing technologies for methane leak detection and repair, or LDAR, could adequately quantify leaks.

“When it comes to the role of their own super-emitters in the Permian, all ten operators are in the dark,” the report concludes.

The EPA currently requires oil and gas firms to inspect their facilities for leaks only twice a year, although the agency last year proposed rules to establish methane standards for old wells, impose more frequent and stringent leak monitoring, and require the capture of natural gas that is found alongside oil and is often released into the atmosphere.

President Biden’s climate and social spending bill, meanwhile, would establish a “methane emissions reduction program” to spur oil and gas companies to cut planet-warming pollution. But the measure has stalled in the Senate for months because of opposition from Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), whose panel has jurisdiction over the methane program, expressed optimism on Tuesday that Democrats could secure a deal with Manchin on the spending bill’s climate provisions before the August recess. 

“I’m hopeful it can provide a foundation,” Carper told reporters, “on which a broader agreement can be had.”

On the Hill

Senate Democrats introduce carbon import tax bill, tying climate policy to trade

Four Democratic senators on Tuesday introduced legislation to impose a carbon border adjustment fee on energy-intensive imported products beginning in 2024, seeking to boost American companies' competitiveness while tackling the climate crisis.

The Clean Competition Act, led by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), would establish a carbon border adjustment on imported goods from energy-intensive industries including fossil fuels, refined petroleum products, petrochemicals and fertilizer. The levy would start at $55 per ton and increase at 5 percent above inflation each year. It would also apply to domestic goods.

“Our Clean Competition Act will give American companies a step up in the global marketplace while lowering carbon emissions at home and abroad and steering the planet toward climate safety,” Whitehouse said in a statement. “I’m hopeful this proposal has a path forward in Congress, as experts from across the political spectrum have expressed support for a border adjustment mechanism like ours.”

Co-sponsors include Sens. Christopher A. Coons (Del.), Brian Schatz (Hawaii) and Martin Heinrich (N.M.).

Senate confirms Shalanda Baker as Energy’s director for economic impact and diversity

The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Shalanda Baker as the Energy Department’s director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity by a vote of 54 to 45. Baker has been working as deputy director for energy justice in the same office and has spent more than a decade researching equitable pathways for the global clean energy transition.

The vote was largely along party lines, although a handful of Republicans supported the nomination, including Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Cindy Hyde-Smith (Miss.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Thom Tillis (N.C.) and Roger Wicker (Miss.). 

“There is no more effective champion for building an equitable, just, clean energy economy than Shalanda,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement.

Pressure points

Workers want a ‘green’ aluminum plant. Now they just need clean power.

A plan to reopen the Alcoa Intalco “green” aluminum plant in Washington is supported by seemingly everyone, including pro-environment Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and pro-jobs local Republicans. But the question of how to power the smelter — and who will pay for it — may trample their ideas, The Post’s Joshua Partlow and Steven Mufson report. 

The Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency that manages the Pacific Northwest’s dams and transmission lines, has said it doesn't have enough hydropower to promise the plant. Local utilities have backed the agency's position.

Intalco’s struggle to revamp highlights the difficulties of creating green manufacturing jobs in the United States, even as supporters argue that reopening the facility would help advance the Biden administration's manufacturing agenda, reduce reliance on Russian aluminum and cut global emissions. 

War in Ukraine could stall global climate progress, Kerry warns

U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry warned on Tuesday that the world must not lock in new fossil fuel infrastructure in response to rising gasoline costs amid the war in Ukraine, Alejandro De La Garza reports for Time. 

“You have this new revisionism suggesting that we have to be pumping oil like crazy, and we have to be moving into long-term [fossil fuel] infrastructure building, which would be absolutely disastrous,” Kerry said at the TIME 100 Summit. “We have to push back, and we have to push back hard.”

On the domestic front, Kerry said President Biden’s recent moves to increase fossil fuel supplies amid the conflict were temporary measures meant to maintain stability. But he added that climate legislation stalled in the Senate might pass in the coming weeks.

“It won’t be what was originally proposed, but it’s possible that it could be really important to the [climate] effort,” he said.

Utility knew about climate change before funding denial, report alleges

The Atlanta-based utility Southern Company knew about the risks of climate change long before it allegedly funded disinformation campaigns against climate science and policy, according to a report released Wednesday by the Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog group that seeks to expose attacks on renewable energy.

For instance, in 1980, a subcontractor who worked with Southern wrote a document that warned of a possible “massive extinction of plant and animal species due to rapid climate change.” The document was presented to a Southern project manager.

However, from 1993 to 2004, Southern paid more than $60 million to special interest groups and outside firms that ran climate disinformation campaigns, the report found.

“Our research shows that Southern Co. was very much in the room when those early warnings were being made,” Dave Anderson, the author of the report, told The Climate 202. “But once climate change became a policy issue, the company really shifted into overdrive funding disinformation and fighting policies that would have limited carbon emissions.”

Asked for comment, Southern spokesman Schuyler Baehman said in an email to The Climate 202 that the utility is “proud of our progress” in reducing emissions.

“Our external engagement is aligned with our goal to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050,” Baehman said. “We always have engaged with regulators, stakeholders and legislators in the interest of our customers and shareholders.”

Agency alert

Ken Graham to lead National Weather Service

Ken Graham, who led the National Hurricane Center through two record-breaking Atlantic hurricane seasons and spearheaded its new warning metrics, will be the next director of the National Weather Service, The Washington Post’s Jason Samenow reports. 

The Weather Service, which is responsible for forecasting the nation’s weather and communicating how it affects Americans’ lives, has become a critical agency as climate change has intensified extreme weather events and increased the costs of disasters. 

Rick Spinrad, who oversees the Weather Service as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said during a news briefing that Graham “will help create a more weather- and climate-ready nation amid more extreme weather fueled by our changing climate.”

In the atmosphere


Thanks for reading!