Obama and Trudeau Seal a Deal on Cutting Methane Emissions in the US and Canada

The accord was announced in Washington DC, as President Barack Obama welcomed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on his first official visit since becoming the leader of Canada.
March 10, 2016, 8:50pm
Photo by Susan Walsh/AP

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It was the big announcement of the love-in between Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and US President Barack Obama: North America is about to get serious about capping methane emissions — the powerful greenhouse gas that's 25 times more effective at trapping heat in the environment than carbon dioxide on a 100-year time span.

The leaders announced the deal during the pomp and circumstance of Trudeau's official visit to DC.

In a press conference in the White House Rose Garden that relied heavily on the word "ambitious," Trudeau sketched out the details of the new agreement and told reporters that "our international partners expect and, indeed, need leadership from us on this issue."

The accord commits the two countries to a 40 to 45 percent reduction in methane emissions, over 2012 levels, by 2025.

A joint statement said that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Environment and Climate Change Canada will move immediately to regulate methane gas. Catherine McKenna, the minister responsible for Canada's environmental efforts — and the first minister in the job specifically tasked with climate change — joined Trudeau in his meetings with Obama.

The first spate of regulations, however, aren't expected from Canada until 2017.

Obama, for his part, reiterated the administration's commitment to limit methane emissions from future oil and natural gas projects. But the White House announced it would clamp down on emissions from existing projects, as well — which brought praise from environmentalists and push back from industry and Congressional Republicans.

There is no relationship in the world quite like the Canada-US relationship. pic.twitter.com/kMRQDSgKRn

— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau)March 10, 2016

Jason Kowalski, 350.org's US policy director, said outrage toward the 4-month-long Porter Ranch methane leak in LA, the worst in US history, as well as fracking becoming a campaign issue during the US presidential race, probably helped to push the president to include existing oil and gas projects in his methane regulations.

"We applaud the White House for considering the communities directly impacted by fracking and for expanding the planned regulations, but one thing is certain: no amount of regulation can make fracking safe," he said. "Environmental groups and communities directly impacted by extreme extraction know the only way to protect people and our climate is to ban fracking and keep fracked gas in the ground."

Sam Adams, US climate director at the World Resources Institute, said cutting methane was a win for the climate — and for business.

"The oil and gas industry wastes more than 9 million metric tons of methane pollution annually, which is enough to power over 6.5 million homes in one year," he said. "Measures to reduce methane leaks from natural gas systems pay for themselves in three years or less."

Industry, however, begs to differ.

Sandra Snyder, an attorney with Bracewell Law, which represents natural gas producers said the new regulations might emphasize costly technologies like the use of infrared cameras to detect methane leaks, rather than simpler, cheaper methods such as the use of soap bubbles.

"I would also emphasize that even if industry is already taking these steps to capture and sell more product, the manpower to carry out the regulatory burdens is not insignificant," she said. "When companies own tens of thousands of wells, documentation and record keeping becomes a real issue. A system is required to manage all of that information and additional training is required to ensure that record keeping is conducted properly."

And with energy prices the lowest they've been in years, those added costs could make or break some producers.

Related: Obama Tells Oil and Gas Companies to Get a Grip on Methane Emissions

US Congressional Republicans were quick to denounce the US-Canada agreement. Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the administration was "punishing the oil and gas industry."

"This is the same industry that has been one of the few sources of light driving the president's anemic economic recovery despite his attempt to extinguish it," he said. "The Obama administration is going after a non-existent problem, but we shouldn't expect anything different from an administration whose stated goal was to 'crucify' domestic energy producers."

In harmonizing American and Canadian climate change plans, Trudeau has finally achieved something that eluded his predecessor: a cross-border climate change deal.

But it's not quite clear how the two countries will hit the new targets. The oil and gas industry is responsible for roughly half of Canada's methane emissions — the rest mostly originates from natural sources, including from the rapidly-melting Arctic.

And as both countries ramp-up fracking projects and increase their supply and use of natural gas — which, in turn, reduces dependency on coal-fired power plants — reducing methane may prove difficult.

A large part of the two leaders' agreement is focused on protecting the Arctic, but the commitment was short on details. Trudeau did commit that Canada would host the next round of negotiations on setting new, binding standards on preserving Arctic fish, and the agreement says the two countries will work to expand low-impact shipping routes through the quickly-melting Arctic Ocean.

"They resolve that the United States and Canada must and will play a leadership role internationally in the low-carbon global economy over the coming decades, including through science-based steps to protect the Arctic and its peoples," reads the joint statement.

Related: Canada Admits There's No Chance It'll Reach Its Climate Change Targets — Not Even Close

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling