The fossil-fuel industry emits some 13 million tons of methane annually – 80% more than EPA had previously estimated.

A crucially important issue has been overlooked in the deluge of news about COVID, the presidential election, and delayed economic recovery. Controls on methane leaks are being withdrawn by the Trump Administration, which will greatly worsen the already ominous climate crisis.

In fact, left unchecked, these leaks will make climate overheating so much worse that all other threats will become moot.

Methane is the primary component of natural gas, and most of the leaks are caused when fossil fuels are extracted, transported, and processed by the oil-and-gas industry. When leaked into the atmosphere, proportionally methane traps some eighty times more heat than the most common greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

screen grab from an infrared video camera documenting the Aliso Canyon gas leak by the Environmental Defense Fund
Screen grab from an infrared video documenting leaking methane gas (EDF)

Given the enormous volumes of gas handled, relatively small portions of leaked gas can greatly intensify climate impacts. Experts estimate that if U.S. methane leaks are allowed to continue unabated, resulting emissions will be worse than allowing all America’s remaining coal-fired power plants to keep operating.

Yet, because so few people are aware of the serious problem of methane leaks, due to gas-producer misinformation, natural gas is falsely perceived to be cleaner and more environmentally responsible than burning oil and coal.

The Environmental Defense Fund reports scientific findings that the fossil-fuel industry emits some 13 million tons of methane annually, 80% more than EPA had previously estimated. Accordingly, mandatory requirements for carefully preventing these leaks were adopted in 2016, yet they’re now under attack.

Until a nearly complete conversion to emission-free clean energy – at least 15 years into the future – unfettered emission of greenhouse gases will catapult our climate into recklessly higher temperatures – beyond anything humans have experienced since our evolution as a species, tens-of-thousands of years ago.

The interrelated catastrophic impacts brought by an over-heated world are truly alarming:

  • Accelerated melting of glaciers, producing trillions of dollars in property damage from flooding due to rising sea-level.
  • Extreme drought, causing mega-wildfires, uninhabitable communities, destruction of crops and famine.
  • Irreversibly high fatalities related to heat-exhaustion, compromised immune systems, and COVID-like pandemics.
  • Mass migration of human populations fleeing famine and seeking more tolerable living conditions,
  • Rapid extinction of wildlife as habitat is destroyed by extreme conditions, destabilizing entire ecosystems.

Obviously, socio-economic consequences will be equally disastrous. Energy demand for cooling will overload power systems, disrupted or depleted critical materials will break supply-chains, and diseased or disabled skilled workers will cripple production capacity.

At the same time, governments will be unable to keep up with the consequences of controlling disease, civil unrest, international disputes over natural resources, and mass migrations.

For all these reasons and more, over 15 years ago, the Department of Defense warned the Bush Administration that climate change was a growing threat to America’s national security.

Yet, since then the issue has been marginalized, addressed with half-hearted and erratic patchwork policies that accommodated politically influential Big-Oil profit-making.

During that period of escalating negligence, for the first time in history the U.S. became one of the world’s largest exporters of fossil-fuels, spurred by contradictory claims that such expanded production was improving our “energy independence” – while selling our vital resources to foreign markets and significantly accelerating the climate crisis.

Though the U.S. participated in the 2015 Paris Accord on the Global Climate, the Trump Administration withdrew America and has dismantled vital restrictions on the fossil-fuel industry, including critically important controls on methane emissions.

To Savannah’s credit, despite these grossly irresponsible national policy roll-backs, last March the City Council adopted a resolution to reduce dependency on carbon-emitting energy sources, pledging to become “carbon neutral” by 2035.

This action paralleled similar steps taken by Atlanta, Athens-Clark County, and other local governments in Georgia and around the nation.

If Savannah and fellow forward-looking communities hope to achieve the important goals they share in reducing climate threats, we must resolve to aggressively endorse emission restrictions, beginning with U.S. controls on methane leaks.

Ironically, representatives of American oil and gas producers have spoken in favor of the methane-leak restrictions, supported by energy companies such as Shell, BP and ExxonMobil. Recognizing that methane leaks compounded the negative public opinion caused by the industry’s controversial and environmentally destructive fracking techniques, they were compelled to address the problem.

As of 2019, about two-thirds of U.S. natural gas came from fracking, though before the fracking boom began less than 15 years ago, the U.S. was a major gas importer.

“We need to control methane emissions now to maximize the advantages of gas and secure a role for decarbonized gas in the future energy system,” a BP spokesman wrote in a public comment issued last year. “Otherwise, we risk losing the confidence of investors, consumers, policymakers and other stakeholders,” he added.

Whether the fossil-fuel industry continues supporting these measures or not, responsible leaders and their constituents must demand timely, undeviating, and accountable actions to reduce greenhouse gases. Such policies will not only help avert a disastrous future, but economic benefits will flourish as clean energy development provides sustainable opportunities for good jobs and small business development.

Over the past decade the cost of solar power has plummeted and related employment has skyrocketed – creating far more jobs than fossil fuels. The main impediment to clean-energy conversion isn’t financial or technological, but political.

One of our top priorities must be adopting energy-sector regulations that support expanded use of rooftop solar for homes and small businesses, while also ensuring near-term investment in regional transmission systems that include “smart-grid” capabilities, essential to efficient and reliable management of clean electrical power.

To build upon Savannah’s leadership on the climate issue, we must concurrently reinstate regulatory reductions on greenhouse gases – foremost methane controls – and support policy initiatives that will create the incentives and infrastructure needed to facilitate rapid transformation to a clean-energy economy.

We cannot afford to delay these priorities, because further negligence will irreversibly magnify existential threats that imperil our future.

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Editor's note: this story first appeared in Connect Savannah.

Image Credits: the feature image of flares burning off excess methane at an oil and gas field is from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (government work/public domain); a screen grab from an infrared video camera documenting the Aliso Canyon gas leak by the Environmental Defense Fund.

David Kyler

David Kyler

David Kyler is the co-director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast, a non-profit membership organization he co-founded in 1997. The Center works to protect, preserve, and sustain the vital natural, cultural, and economic resources of coastal Georgia.

One of David’s deepest convictions, and a founding principle of the Center, is that environmental research, scientific information, and public involvement are urgently needed to improve decisions affecting the sustainability of natural systems. Accordingly, the Center’s slogan is “Advocating responsible decisions to sustain coastal Georgia’s environment and quality of life.”

To pursue the Center’s mission, Kyler gives priority to raising public awareness about issues affecting coastal Georgia at all levels – from local to state and national, to global. He frequently publishes letters and opinion columns in Georgia newspapers, often commenting on controversial issues that require improving the analysis and coordination of both economic and environmental considerations.

In the past three years alone, on behalf of the Center David has published close to one-hundred commentaries on a range of issues, including offshore drilling, protecting Cumberland Island National Seashore, risks of contamination by coal ash and other toxic materials, coastal development controls, and conflicts between environmental protection and economic development practices.

In the past decade, under Kyler’s influence, the Center has been one of the few Georgia non-profit organizations persistently voicing alarm about the global climate crisis and the urgent need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. In 2018 and 2019 the Center hosted several public forums on climate issues in the Savannah area and collaborated with the Climate Reality Project in organizing a rally in Savannah, scheduled to be coordinated with the international Climate Strike.

Through his work with the Center, David is helping to redefine economic self-interest by incorporating the principles of sustainability in public policies governing both economic development and environmental protection. He is convinced that systemic analysis and life-cycle assessment, including thorough evaluation of economic and societal externalities, are essential to responsible environmental stewardship.

He holds degrees from Lehigh University (BS, Industrial Engineering) and Southern Illinois University (MS, Design Science), and has completed advanced studies in Resource Management and Policy at the State University of New York at Syracuse. Mr. Kyler has worked in environmental policy analysis, regional planning, and public-interest advocacy for over 40 years. He’s been a resident of Saint Simons Island since 1977 and grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.