President Obama and Methane


President Obama and Methane: Inconsistency or Strategy?

By Sam Lipson, Staff Contributor

On March 28, President Obama proposed a strategy to cut methane emissions from oil and natural gas production, landfills, and cattle. The proposal focuses on the acceleration of biogas development to recapture and reduce methane emissions from its largest sources. President Obama famously pledged to cut the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. Simply put, this methane proposal is only a modest step in that direction. This effort is likely intended to set a tone for future regulation aimed to cripple the boom of natural gas production, rather than make an appreciable impact on current methane emission levels.

Although methane emissions make up just nine percent of greenhouse gas emissions, this number is expected to increase as natural gas production continues to rise. President Obama has generally encouraged this production because natural gas releases far less greenhouse gas emissions than burning oil or coal. But environmental advocates argue that because methane has a more severe effect on climate change, even at relatively small emission levels, natural gas production should be curbed. In light of President Obama’s 2020 pledge, it is likely his administration’s belief that methane emissions should be addressed now is due to the rise in natural gas production. Otherwise, attacking a source responsible for just nine percent of overall emissions seems incomprehensibly selective.

” … [reducing] emissions drastically requires ‘more than letting the industry know there’s an opportunity out there’.”

The administration’s effort is also voluntary, outlining methods to accelerate the adoption of biogas and other technologies to reduce emissions. Methane emissions are particularly prominent in agriculture, where the nation’s herd of 88 million cattle fart and eat their way to huge methane emissions. However, President Obama aimed this proposal at dairy farmers, despite dairy cows making up only nine million of the nation’s herd of livestock. The stated goal of the dairy industry effort is to reduce their methane emissions by 25 percent by 2020. But Professor Thomas Hertel, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University, does not expect the industry to reach this goal. Though the voluntary program reduces waste, creates jobs, and creates better manure, Professor Hertel recognizes that to reduce emissions drastically requires “more than letting the industry know there’s an opportunity out there.”

So why target dairy farmers, and why set such lofty goals? My impression is that the Obama administration is aiming to create a voluntary regulatory environment that incentivizes methane emissions reduction to make it politically palatable for a larger impact reduction program down the road.  Given the current pace of legislative action, particularly on divisive issues, voluntary executive proposals may soften the impact of future efforts.