One in three Americans live in polluted air because of their proximity to oil and gas operations, a public health problem worsening as oil and gas companies continuously pump large amounts of benzene, formaldehyde, hydrogen sulfide, and other pollutants into the air. In particular, methane, one of the most powerful atmospheric warming agents, is rapidly increasing in concentration. Last year, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology launched an investigation to explore methane emissions, specifically those emitted by ten US oil and gas companies, including Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron. The committee found that these companies have been under-reporting methane leaks from oil and gas operations.
In their report, the investigation Science Committee staff pointed out these companies as “failing to design, equip and inform” the true extent of their facilities’ methane leaks. The oil and gas sector’s attitude towards the seriousness of methane leaks “does not reflect the latest scientific evidence on methane leaks,” they said.
At a hearing on Wednesday, June 8, Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat, added, “Unfortunately, the oil and gas sector has a long way to go to rein in methane leaks.” Johnson highlights the extent to which these companies need to cut their emission outputs – starting with transparency of their data.
Methane is the main component of natural gas, a chemical with the incredible power of warming the atmosphere. Methane has 80 times more warming power than carbon dioxide, the most widely known greenhouse gas, according to CNN. A hotter planet means more extreme weather events, including fires, severe flooding, droughts and heat waves – natural disasters that hurt people living in their vicinity. Additionally, pollutants in the air cause cancer, respiratory issues, asthma, apnea, and many other things. Scientific research shows that reducing methane emissions would be the most effective way in limiting global warming and its effects – both lessening extreme weather events and their effects on people, and public health risks from pollution.
While methane is naturally produced by volcanoes and decomposing plants, oil and gas companies have taken methane emitting to the next level. Methane leaks from oil and gas wells during horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, from equipment and pipelines, and by refining it. In the past decade, methane concentrations have risen rapidly, now reaching a concentration higher than any time in the last 800,000 years, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The US is one of the highest methane emitting countries, with thousands of active natural gas wells and millions of abandoned oils, two million miles of natural gas pipelines, and several hundred gas refineries, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Unfortunately, these big oil and gas companies have no apparent interest in drastically reducing methane emissions. Instead, they have been lying about their emission levels to cover up their true impact on the environment. Luckily, with infrared cameras and advanced satellites, scientists can detect methane emissions around the globe and observe companies’ true emissions levels, reports CNN.
The U.S. government has an opportunity to use their political power to encourage good climate practices and take responsibility for methane emissions under their country’s name. Under President Joe Biden’s guidance, the US government has made great strides in focusing on this problem. For example, the Biden administration is pushing for funding to clean up orphan wells on state and federal land. Biden’s EPA is also pursuing a rule that requires oil and gas companies to monitor and fix methane leaks from their facilities. These steps are great, but for such a large problem, much more effort needs to be invested in urging oil and gas companies to change their practices. Biden and his staff seem to recognize this desperate need to cut methane emissions and reduce the human risks.
Rick Duke, senior director and White House liaison for John Kerry, President Biden’s special climate envoy, emphasized in a press call with CNN that ensuring a reduction in methane leaks, is a high priority for the Biden administration. “There’s been incredible largely behind-the-scenes effort already to prepare to move faster and more comprehensively to cut methane domestically,” he said, “at the same time that we’re addressing this as a diplomatic imperative.”