The oil industry and scholars are trying to figure out a way to cut potent methane emissions without harming the energy industry or the environment.
They also need to keep alive an agreement among U.S., Mexico, and Canada to curb the emissions, or find an alternative.
John Hopkins and Duke University scholars published an article Monday that says a 2016 agreement among the three countries to cut methane emissions is flailing, at best, while the Trump administration's push to reverse regulations to control the potent greenhouse gas provides even more challenges.
The new article published in the journal Climate Policy says atmospheric methane emission levels "continue to increase globally," despite the Obama administration agreements struck with Mexico and Canada to cut drillers' emissions 40 percent-45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025.
Methane is a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas emission that, with carbon dioxide, is blamed by most climate scientists for causing man-made global warming.
The researchers conclude that even with emissions rising and the lack of progress among North America's largest emitters, the U.S. can make sizable progress toward the 2025 goal. But it can only happen if the federal government is consistent in its emissions counting, while seeking science-based ways to control methane leaks from oil and natural gas wells.
“It is critical — for both the development of the sector and the environment — that decision-makers in government and industry rely not only on politics and economics, but also scientific evidence,” said Sarah Marie Jordaan, co-author of the article and assistant energy professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
“We have developed a coherent framework that integrates science and policy to help decision-makers to do just that, in support of both economic and environmental goals,” she said.
The researchers propose to establish a partnership between industry and government, forming a North American Methane Reduction Framework that would "integrate public and private research and mitigation policies."
The article comes as one of the leading users of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the United States, Exxon Mobil subsidiary XTO Energy, is embracing an industry framework to track and cut emissions.
Exxon's fracking subsidiary, a company with the largest natural gas reserves in the U.S., wants regulations on methane to be tightened, just as long as they are voluntary.
Sara Ortwein, president of XTO Energy, said in a blog post a week ago that the company has five principles to cut the greenhouse gas, which comes from wells and affiliated infrastructure.
The company put out a set of regulatory principles last week that it is seeking to meet with other titans of the oil and natural gas industry. The principles call for "green completions" at wells to stop methane leaks at the source by capturing the greenhouse gas, which can be recycled and sold into the market.
Ortwein also embraces better use and sharing of emissions data, which jibes with Jordaan's proposal. "By growing the store of knowledge, we can increase understanding of emissions profiles, better track our overall progress, and enable the regulator community knowledge capacity," the XTO chief wrote.
“The beauty of these principles is that they could underpin a regulatory effort that both encourages and keeps up with continuous technological innovation,” she added.
“And they can be designed so as not to unduly drive up costs on natural gas producers."
Environmentalists were encouraged by XTO’s statement, but with some hesitation stemming more from the Trump administration than the energy industry.
Lauren Pagel, policy director for the group Earthworks, said she is hopeful, but that a better move would be for XTO to support rules that the Trump administration is trying to eliminate.
“As a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil, the largest oil company in the world, we hope XTO goes beyond just words and advocates for common-sense methane standards at every level of government,” Pagel said.
Pagel noted that the principles, which Exxon, Shell, BP, Statoil and others are advocating, are more ambitious than any rules the Obama administration attempted to put in place to curb methane.
“Under assault by the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department rules to cut oil and gas methane pollution are actually less ambitious than what XTO now supports,” Pagel said.
Trump's Interior Department soon will issue a final rule to officially roll back the Bureau of Land Management's methane control regulations from the Obama administration.
But the XTO chief suggested a more conservative approach. “We will need to stay pragmatic and seek the possible," Ortwein said. "We’ve made a lot of progress so far in minimizing methane emissions from industry operations. I am confident we can achieve even more.”
The industry says regulation is not needed when it has its own standards to reduce methane leaks and can control the emissions as a matter of good business practice. Methane is valuable to the industry and can be captured and sold into the market as natural gas.