On his first day in office, President Joe Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement, temporarily banned all new oil and gas leases on federal land, and canceled permits for 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 greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, relative to 2005, and reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“The signs are unmistakable, the science is undeniable, and the cost of inaction keeps mounting,” Biden told world leaders on Earth Day. “The countries that take decisive actions now will be the ones that reap the clean-energy benefits of the boom that’s coming.”
Then a funny thing happened on the way 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 estimates at its peak will pump up to 160,000 barrels of oil a day out of some 250 wells, producing nearly 600 million barrels of oil over the next 30 years. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland had strongly opposed the project while a member of Congress just last year.
Though it killed the Keystone XL pipeline, in April Biden’s administration argued in court against shutting down the controversial Dakota Access pipeline that carries a half-million barrels of oil a day between South Dakota and Illinois. That pipeline is also opposed by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which sees it as a threat to its water supply and sacred sites. Shortly thereafter, Biden’s Justice Department defended more than 400 oil and gas leases on public land in Wyoming issued in late 2020 by the Trump administration, even though environmental groups had successfully sued to stop the leases in a lower court because of the potential impact on sage grouse and other wildlife. A federal judge eventually blocked the leases in June.
Biden’s State Department in May dropped U.S. sanctions against the developers of Nordstream 2, a massive gas pipeline from the Russian Arctic to Germany beneath the Baltic Sea, which carries both climate and political ramifications. The pipeline would increase Europe’s dependence on Russian gas, while bypassing a current pipeline that runs through Ukraine, an economic bombshell 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. U.S. LNG exports soared to record heights in the spring.
“Many of us had high hopes for the new administration,” says Sergey Paltsev at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). “We need to be at net zero as fast as possible. And we are showing that current efforts are not enough.“
Though the administration has been mum about its perceived climate backtracking, Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm minced no words about her support for LNG exports during her confirmation hearings in February. “I believe U.S. LNG exports can have an important role to play in reducing international consumption of fuels that have greater contribution to greenhouse gas emissions,” Granholm told senators.
Biden's climate czar John Kerry angered numerous environmental groups when he told the head of the International Monetary Fund in April that "In Europe, no bank or financial institution or even private source will fund a coal-fired power plant, but we have to move away from coal faster... . Gas, to some degree, will be a bridge fuel."
Political observers believe the support for big projects in Alaska and Wyoming is likely political horse trading to win favors with unions and those states’ moderate Republican senators—Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Liz Cheney (R-WY)—whose votes Biden will need to pass his larger agenda.
"If you approve a pipeline you have thousands of jobs right there. It's hard for politicians to turn down," says Drew Shindell of Duke University.
But, says Paltsev, “You cannot sit on two chairs at the same time.”
The stakes are high. The International Energy Agency, the staid economic watchdog of the world’s energy sector, issued an alarming report in May warning that all new investment in oil and gas infrastructure must end this summer in order to have any hope of staying below the 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) increase in global temperatures that have been identified as our best hope for avoiding devastating climate change.
Which bridge to the future?
Many, if not most, of Biden’s fossil fuel moves involve natural gas, long touted as a “bridge fuel” between coal and a zero-carbon future. But that’s no longer the case, says Paltsev, who is deputy director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change at MIT.
“Five to 10 years ago there were several reports from MIT and others that thought it was a bridge fuel,” says Paltsev. “At that time we were mostly 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 dropped so fast it is competitive.”
Methane, which makes up 70 to 90 percent of natural gas, has turned out to be both a blessing and a curse for the climate. When burned, it emits less than half the CO2 of coal. When leaked, however, it has more than 80 times the global warming potential of CO2 in its first 20 years in the atmosphere. And numerous reports over the last few years have revealed that it leaks virtually everywhere it is pumped, piped, and produced. As a result, methane emissions have skyrocketed over the last 20 years.
“Methane is a leaky system, just like the irrigation system in your yard,” says Riley Duren, a research scientist at the University of Arizona who has spent the last decade tracking and quantifying methane emissions for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Wherever humans produce methane, it’s going to leak.”
In a recent study of the Permian Basin, the nation’s largest oil and gas reservoir that lies beneath West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, Duren and colleagues flew over the region at 30,000 feet with a hyperspectral imaging camera that could not only see but accurately measure invisible methane leaks with a resolution of 10 square meters or less on the ground. What they saw was astounding—more than a thousand “super emitters” generating plumes from wells, pipelines, compressors, gathering stations, and unlit flares—with enough accuracy to actually identify the leaking equipment. Nearly 150 of those persistent leaks amounted to almost 10 percent of all estimated methane emissions from the entire U.S. oil and gas industry.
“When you are looking at the Permian through the camera at 30,000 feet you see plumes of smoke all going in the same direction with the prevailing wind, one after another across this landscape,” says Duren. “It was like watching wildfires up and down the coast of California.” The similarity is particularly poignant since the recent wildfires were fueled in part by climate change.
The average leakage at natural gas production facilities in the U.S. is 2 percent, says Duren, and around 3 percent for those in the Permian Basin. “That’s ten times higher than what would constitute a low-carbon bridge fuel,” he says, “So if that’s the goal, 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 Duke University’s Drew Shindell, lead author of the UN Environmental Program’s recent Global Methane Assessment. “It’s not even low-hanging fruit,” Shindell says. “It’s just lying on the ground for us to pick up. And unlike CO2, methane is intrinsically valuable. Industries can make money capturing methane. Towns can make money converting landfill gas to energy.”
The Global Methane Assessment found that available targeted methane reduction measures could reduce methane emissions by 45 percent by 2030, avoiding 0.5°F (0.3°C) of global warming by the 2040s.
The best policy on natural gas, however, may just be to keep most of it in the ground, according to MIT’s Paltsev. His group’s latest report calls for a major course correction for the planet and a far more rapid transition to renewable energy. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel, he points out.
“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 hurting renewables. Cheap natural gas in the long run is actually going to hurt emissions reductions efforts,” Paltsev says.