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Methane Fee Shapes Up as New Political Battle for Biden, Congress

Farm state Democrats in the United States and the Biden White House are about to step into a “political tinderbox” over the emissions reduction option identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as one of the quickest ways to begin getting runaway global warming under control.

“The Biden administration and liberal Democrats want to go after methane emissions, but doing so could open a political tinderbox with [Republican] lawmakers and Democratic farm-state colleagues, agriculture, and the [fossil] energy industry,” Politico Morning Energy reports. In a summary of a longer, subscriber-only analysis, the daily newsletter says the main opposition to tougher methane controls will come from U.S. livestock producers and smaller oil and gas operators.

“Though carbon emissions get much of the spotlight when talking about global emissions, Democrats are looking for ways to combat the second most responsible greenhouse gas for climate change: methane,” Morning Energy explains. “The gas traps heat 86 times more effectively over 20 years than carbon dioxide, and emissions have boomed in the past several years, with the shale revolution playing no small part.”

The IPCC’s latest science assessment August 9 placed atmospheric methane concentrations at their highest in 800,000 years, Politico adds. And that makes methane cuts “the biggest opportunity to slow warming between now and 2040,” Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development and a lead IPCC reviewer, told The Guardian in the days leading up to the IPCC release.

“Combatting methane emissions is becoming a major target for some Democrats in Congress and the administration,” Politico says, with legislators considering a methane polluter fee as part of a US$3.5-trillion budget resolution that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) hopes to see adopted by the end of September. “Fossil fuel majors would seem like a likely supporter for stopping emissions, with the methane lost to the atmosphere a potential commodity they could sell.”

But the focus on methane “could be at a nexus of conflict with the agriculture sector and small drillers who find additional regulations potentially onerous and harmful to their bottom lines,” Politico adds. With the farm sector responsible for 40% of the country’s methane output, the impact on retail beef prices could become a “political third rail” as mid-term elections approach next fall.

Republicans are already picking up on that message. “Our hard-working livestock producers should not have to worry about being subject to onerous regulations and increased production costs,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) said of the proposed methane fee. “This ‘cow tax’ will just result in higher food costs for Americans at the grocery store at a time when inflation already has caused prices to skyrocket.”

While the U.S. Congress decides what, if anything, to do about methane emissions, Bloomberg BusinessWeek has a profile of the scientists and activists who are working to measure the atmospheric impact of fracking activities in the massive Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico. At 2.9 million tonnes per year, methane from the state’s fossil operations equalled the total carbon pollution from all sources in the state of Florida, the news agency says.

“Identifying and plugging these leaks could do more to slow climate change than almost any other single measure,” Bloomberg writes. “Unlike carbon, methane breaks down relatively quickly in the atmosphere. That means efforts to curtail it can pay off within a generation.”

But “in many cases, [fossil] energy producers and pipeline operators are free to spew methane into the air without running afoul of any law,” the news story adds. So “in lieu of regulation, non-profit groups and activists are acting as self-appointed private eyes, running their own Permian monitoring programs and pressuring companies directly.” Buyers are beginning to turn down liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments over concern about their emissions footprint, and some fossil companies have begun their own voluntary monitoring.

However, “it’s unclear how far private and voluntary actions will go,” Bloomberg writes. “One obstacle is the sheer size of the Permian, a sparsely-populated scrubland where spills from open hatches, equipment malfunctions, and the like can continue for days before anyone notices.” And with the territory covered by a “jumble of companies and wells”, the story adds, “spills are so large and numerous that, seen from space, they merge into one indistinguishable mass.”