For Immediate Release, July 29, 2014

Contact: Patrick Sullivan, (415) 517-9364,  

Top Scientists Urge Obama Administration to Use Accurate Estimates of Methane's Dangerous Climate Effects

Letter Urges Aggressive Methane Reductions From Oil and Gas Industry

WASHINGTON— As the U.S. Department of Energy examines methane pollution from the natural gas industry, a group of prominent climate scientists today urged the Obama administration to update methods for estimating the climate consequences of this dangerously potent greenhouse gas.

In a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and other top officials, Drew Shindell of Duke University, Michael Mann of Penn State University, Michael MacCracken of the Climate Institute, Robert Howarth of Cornell University and 17 other leading climate scientists also called for aggressive reductions of methane pollution from the oil and gas industry, the agricultural sector and other sources, because methane leaves the atmosphere much more quickly than carbon dioxide and therefore provides an important opportunity to make significant near-term cuts in greenhouse gas pollution.

“This difference means that aggressive mitigation of methane emissions is essential if the near-term pace of climate change is to be slowed,” reads the letter, which notes that such reductions could help slow Arctic sea-ice loss, permafrost melt and other harmful effects of global warming.

“Reducing the oil and gas industry’s massive methane pollution could help provide the breathing room we need to avoid disastrous climate tipping points,” said Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity, who signed the letter. “The Obama administration has to start using accurate estimates of methane’s short-term climate effects. But our government also has to take swift action against this dangerously potent greenhouse gas.”

While the Department of Energy is examining opportunities for reducing methane from the natural gas sector, officials have focused primarily on voluntary measures. But experts say stronger reductions are needed under the Clean Air Act.

Methane is the second-most important greenhouse gas, behind carbon dioxide. But methane remains in the atmosphere for a much shorter time — about 12 years — so cutting methane emissions can result in significant near-term reductions in global warming. Yet most federal and state agencies analyze methane’s impacts only over a 100-year period, ignoring the short-term benefits of reducing this pollutant.

The Obama administration has acknowledged the importance of methane as part of the president’s Climate Action Plan, but federal agencies continue to use only 100-year methane global warming potentials and outdated values from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Second Assessment Report, which was released nearly 20 years ago.

As the scientists’ letter emphasizes, methane mitigation is essential to avoid immediate climate catastrophe, but mitigation options can only be properly understood when accurate, short-term (20-year) analyses that employ appropriate global warming potentials are evaluated. As long as outdated GWPs are used and only long-term time horizons are considered, agencies will be making uninformed decisions regarding methane mitigation.

Today’s letter notes that short-term consequences are important both to avoid climate tipping points and to meet the U.S. commitment to contribute to maintaining global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 775,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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