On the first day of his tenure, President Joe Biden joined the Paris Agreement, temporarily banned all new oil and gas leases on federal lands, and canceled permits on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. In April, the president held a virtual climate conference in which he went even further than the Paris climate commitments, pledging that the world’s second-largest economy would cut gas emissions by half. greenhouse effect by 2030 compared to 2005 and reach zero net carbon emissions. by 2050.
“The signs are unmistakable, the science is undeniable, and the cost of inaction keeps rising,” Biden told world leaders on Earth Day. “The countries that take decisive action now will be the ones to reap the clean energy benefits of the boom to come. “
Then a funny thing happened on the road to decarbonization. Shortly after Biden’s bold climate announcement, his administration approved ConocoPhillips’ massive new Willow project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), which the oil giant believes at its peak it will pump up to 160,000 barrels of oil per day from select 250 wells, producing nearly 600 million barrels of oil over the next 30 years. Home Secretary Deb Haaland strongly opposed the plan while she was a congressman last year.
Despite killing the Keystone XL pipeline, in April, the Biden administration argued in court against shutting down the controversial Dakota Access pipeline that carries half a million barrels of oil a day between South Dakota and the ‘Illinois. This pipeline is also opposed by the Sioux tribe of Standing Rock, who see it as a threat to their water supply and sacred sites. Shortly thereafter, Biden’s Justice Department defended more than 400 oil and gas leases on Wyoming public land issued in late 2020 by the Trump administration, even though environmental groups had managed to end the leases before a lower court due to the potential impact on sage. grouse and other wildlife. A federal judge finally blocked the leases in June.
Biden’s State Department in May dropped US sanctions against the developers of Nordstream 2, a massive gas pipeline connecting the Russian Arctic to Germany under the Baltic Sea, which has both climatic and political ramifications. The pipeline would increase Europe’s dependence on Russian gas, while bypassing an existing pipeline that runs through Ukraine, an economic bomb to its war-torn economy. The administration has given tacit support to several liquid natural gas projects and initiatives that could be a source of emissions for decades. US LNG exports hit record highs in the spring.
“Many of us had high hopes for the new administration,” says Sergey Paltsev of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, lead author of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (AR5). “We need to be net zero as quickly as possible. And we show that current efforts are not enough. ”
Although the administration has been silent on its perceived backtracking on the climate, Energy Department Secretary Jennifer Granholm has not mince words on her support for LNG exports during her confirmation hearings in February. “I believe that US LNG exports can have an important role to play in reducing international consumption of fuels that contribute more to greenhouse gas emissions,” Granholm told senators.
Biden’s climate czar John Kerry angered many environmental groups when he told the president of the International Monetary Fund in April that “in Europe no bank or financial institution or even private source will fund a power plant. coal electric, but we need to move away from coal faster … Gas, to some extent, will be a transitional fuel. “
Political observers believe support for major projects in Alaska and Wyoming is likely political haggling to win favor with unions and moderate Republican senators in those states – Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Liz Cheney (R-WY) – which Biden will vote need to expand his agenda.
“If you approve a pipeline, you have thousands of jobs there. It’s hard for politicians to turn down,” says Drew Shindell of Duke University.
But, says Paltsev, “You can’t sit in two chairs at the same time.”
The stakes are high. The International Energy Agency, the economic watchdog of the global energy sector, released an alarming report in May, warning that all new investments in oil and gas infrastructure must end this summer in order to have every hope of staying below the 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) rise in global temperatures that have been identified as our best hope for avoiding devastating climate change.
What bridge to the future?
Many, if not most, of Biden’s fossil fuel initiatives involve natural gas, long touted as a “bridge fuel” between coal and a carbon-free future. But that’s no longer the case, says Paltsev, deputy director of the joint program on the science and policy of global change at MIT.
“Five to ten years ago, several reports from MIT and others thought it was bridge fuel,” says Paltsev. “At that time, we were mainly comparing coal and natural gas. “
“But now the story has changed dramatically,” says Paltsev. “Now it’s renewables, because the cost of wind and solar has dropped so quickly that it’s competitive. “
Methane, which makes up 70 to 90 percent of natural gas, has proven to be both a blessing and a curse for the climate. When burned, it emits less than half the CO2 of coal. When disclosed, however, it has over 80 times the global warming potential of CO2 during its first 20 years in the atmosphere. And numerous reports over the past few years have revealed that it leaks virtually everywhere it is pumped, piped, and produced. As a result, methane emissions have exploded over the past 20 years.
“Methane is a leaky system, just like your garden irrigation system,” says Riley Duren, a researcher at the University of Arizona who has spent the last decade tracking and quantifying methane emissions for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Anywhere humans produce methane, it will leak. “
In a recent study of the Permian Basin, the country’s largest oil and gas reservoir located beneath western Texas and southeastern New Mexico, Duren and his colleagues flew over the region at 30,000 feet with a hyperspectral imaging camera that could not only see but accurately measure the invisible. methane leaks with a resolution of 10 square meters or less on the ground. What they saw was astounding – over a thousand “super emitters” generating plumes from wells, pipelines, compressors, collection stations, and unlit torches – with enough precision to actually identify leaking equipment. Nearly 150 of these persistent leaks accounted for nearly 10% of all estimated methane emissions from the entire US oil and gas industry.
“When you look at the Permian through the camera at 30,000 feet, you see plumes of smoke all heading in the same direction with the prevailing wind, one after another across this landscape,” says Duren. “It was like watching wildfires along the California coast.” The similarity is particularly poignant since recent wildfires have been fueled in part by climate change.
The average leak at natural gas production facilities in the United States is 2%, according to Duren, and around 3% for those in the Permian Basin. “That’s ten times more than what would be a low-carbon bridging fuel,” he says, “So if that’s the goal, the leak rates have to come down a lot.”
The good news
Most methane leaks are easy and relatively inexpensive to plug, especially in oil and gas equipment, coal mines and landfills, says Drew Shindell of Duke University, lead author of the recent Global Methane Assessment. of the United Nations Environment Program. “It’s not even handy fruit,” says Shindell. “It’s just lying on the ground so we can pick it up. And unlike CO2, methane is inherently valuable. Industries can make money by capturing methane. Cities can earn money by converting landfill gas into energy.
The Global Methane Assessment found that available targeted methane reduction measures could reduce methane emissions by 45% by 2030, preventing 0.5 ° F (0.3 ° C) of global warming from here the 2040s.
According to MIT’s Paltsev, the best natural gas policy, however, may just be to keep most of it in the ground. The latest report from his group calls for a major correction of the course for the planet and a much faster transition to renewable energies. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel, he stresses.
“By pushing natural gas – which is indeed cleaner than coal, but it’s still a fossil fuel that releases a lot of CO2 and, more importantly, a lot of methane – we are actually harming renewables. Cheap natural gas in the long run will actually hurt emissions reduction efforts, ”said Paltsev.