The world’s leading oil producers, including those in the United States, are rolling out new plans in Dubai on Saturday to significantly reduce methane from their operations – potentially the most consequential action resulting from the first week of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP28.

The deals feature a first-time pact of 50 of the world’s biggest oil companies – state-owned giants including Saudi Aramco along with corporate supermajors including ExxonMobil – committing to nearly eliminate methane emissions from their drilling and production work. It also includes new regulations from the U.S. government and other countries, and international monitoring efforts intended to hold companies to their promises.

Sultan Al Jaber, the Emirati oil executive leading COP28, had pushed for the international pact as the oil and gas industry’s response to climate change, which activists have said is long overdue.

Al Jaber said he is committed to transparency and hoped more companies would join the pledge. “We must bring everyone in to be accountable,” he said.

The industry has focused on methane because it is a super polluter commonly emitted from industry operations even though scientists say its emissions must be swiftly reduced to meet the ambitious goal of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, preventing warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

“If those promises are met, it’s got the potential to cut temperatures we would otherwise see within the next decade . . . more than anything agreed to at prior COPs, more than anything I’ve seen in my entire career over 30 years,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, or EDF. “There’ve been a lot of pledges made at COP that have never been fulfilled. We feel like we have to set up a robust accountability system.”


The effort comes as countries and companies face increasing pressure to act on a greenhouse gas that once was largely ignored but which is more than 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Negotiations in recent weeks have involved some of the world’s largest oil and industrial companies, banks, and top government officials from the United States and the Middle East pushing for a culmination of deals at the Dubai summit.

For the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, COP28 has been a forum for them to show that oil and gas can play a vital role in powering the world, even in an era of climate change caused by fossil fuels. Currently, the industry leaks about 2 to 3 percent of all the gas it produces directly into the atmosphere, adding to global warming, according to EDF. The pact would require them to reduce those emissions to just 0.2% of their output.

“The underlying message is that this is their last, best chance to have an impact,” Charles Hendry, a former U.K. minister of state for energy and current fellow at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center, said in an email. “We need faster progress in decarbonizing the industry and eliminating methane emissions.”

At COP28 on Saturday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan detailed final standards to limit methane at U.S. oil and gas wells, a precursor to subsequent announcements. In a proposal first made two years ago, the agency had said it would put about 900,000 new and existing wells under more aggressive requirements for preventing and stopping leaks, a move the oil industry once fought for years but which many leading companies have grown to support or accept.

Industry seeks to position itself as a problem solver

The announcements reflect how the oil and gas industry, long vilified by climate activists, has become central to global climate negotiations, and to this summit in particular. UAE leaders see their host status as a chance to argue that fossil fuel producers are key to addressing climate change, even though their past and ongoing emissions are major drivers of rising temperatures.


Because methane is so potent, U.S. officials and climate advocates are focusing on it as one of the fastest ways to limit the acceleration of global warming. If successfully implemented, the initiatives could be a historic climate achievement, supporters say.

“If you add it all together, what it amounts to is really momentum building at a time when we really need it,” said Gina McCarthy, who once was President Biden’s top climate adviser and was the first to introduce methane limits on oil and gas operations as EPA administrator under President Barack Obama. “People are ready to rally around an answer.”

Some activist groups, however, said the rules fall short of addressing the real problem – fossil fuel production. “It’s not enough to tinker around the edges,” said Gabrielle Levy, associate director of methane gas communications for the group Climate Nexus. He said the world needs to take “concrete steps to cut those emissions at the source – by eliminating the source.”

Global efforts on methane have taken off in recent weeks, including a breakthrough at Sunnylands, Calif., in talks between U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, his counterpart from China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. China publicly committed for the first time to curbing methane and other greenhouse gases across its economy by 2035. That followed up on its previous announcement to push for new methane monitoring and controls by 2025.

The Sunnylands deal included a planned summit on methane and other gases – those that aren’t carbon dioxide – which is scheduled for Saturday at COP28 with the UAE hosts. Observers and delegates consider it to be among the biggest events of the summit’s opening week, and many are also expecting the UAE will orchestrate a pact of companies committing to cut methane emissions.

Former U.S. energy secretary Ernest Moniz, now a COP28 advisory committee member, said society needs large international coalitions to address climate change. Bringing in oil and gas companies is especially helpful to work at the scale required, he added.


“I expect that COP28 will deliver,” Moniz said in an email.

Methane has turned from an afterthought to a fixation for environmental groups and energy companies over the past 20 years as warming has accelerated and natural gas reshaped global energy markets. Some in both groups initially pitched vast and newly cheap supplies of natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal, a “bridge fuel” until fully carbon-free sources of energy could supplant fossil fuels. But new science then undercut those claims.

Findings, especially from work pursued by the Environmental Defense Fund, showed that millions of leaks from minuscule to massive undid much of gas’s climate benefits by allowing raw methane simply to escape into the atmosphere. It ushered in a wave of regulatory crackdowns and political debates and led oil and gas companies to spend millions to protect their businesses with new technology to detect and stop those leaks.

Methane, in its raw form, is one of the most powerful forces at trapping heat. It accounts for more than half of the warming happening now from the greenhouse effect, though it makes up only a quarter of global emissions. Halving human methane emissions by 2030 could slow the rate of global warming by more than 25% and start a path to prevent 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100, according to 2021 research by a team of scientists from the Environmental Defense Fund and several U.S. universities.

That has led to the U.S. team’s emphasis on talks with Beijing. Kerry has pushed for China and other countries to join the Global Methane Pledge, which aims to cut methane emissions by 30 % by the end of the decade. Further expanding this coalition and producing success at Saturday’s summit are among the top priorities for the delegation at COP28, U.S. officials have said.

They plan for the summit to shift that pledge work to implementation, including new spending to locate and address methane leak hotspots in several countries. U.S. officials are announcing nearly $1 billion in grants available, from government and philanthropic sources, particularly for poorer countries that have state-owned oil and gas producers that may be lacking in capital to do the work on their own.


U.S. officials have been working with such nations, and expect some of them – including Turkmenistan, the world’s fourth largest methane emitter, and Kazakstan, the 12th largest – to announce new action plans as part of the summit. To receive the grant money, countries would have to commit to reducing their methane emissions from oil and gas production to nearly zero.

The British giant BP began trying to limit those emissions as far back as the 1990s, but few others took interest because of low financial returns from the work, said John Browne, the company’s former chief executive. Companies need a combination of incentives and penalties to spur action – and the state-owned companies must be a part of the deal because they produce most of the world’s oil, he added.

Al Jaber pursued a similar agenda, prodding companies to join what he is calling the Oil and Gas Decarbonization Charter. As part of the deal, companies are also agreeing to stop simply burning off gas as waste – a process known as flaring – at their well sites by 2030, and commit to effectively zeroing out all greenhouse gas emissions from their operations from 2050.

The key element is getting giant and often secretive state-owned oil companies to join the commitment and agree to outside monitoring, said John Browne, the former chief executive of British giant BP. Brazil’s and Libya’s state-owned producers, among others, are also part of the deal, and more than a dozen such companies are making first-time commitments to eliminate emissions. It covers more than 40% of the world’s oil production.

“It’s not material unless the state companies participate,” said Browne, who now has an interest in a company that monitors methane emissions through satellite data. “It’s really important they pledge, and it’s even more important that we monitor it and what is said is done.”

Several environmental and international groups Saturday also announced a coalition to do that, backed by $40 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies. The International Energy Agency, an arm of the U.N., EDF, and the energy think tank RMI – all groups that already gather or use satellites and data to track methane emissions – agreed to collaborate and expand their efforts to hold oil and gas companies to their new methane commitments.


They said they would work together to share that data with financiers, commodity buyers, and governments, and help countries, especially developing economies, to address their leaks. They also plan to advocate together for stronger government regulations.

JPMorgan Chase – a major funder of energy companies – issued an analysis in the days leading up to COP28 encouraging oil and gas companies to aggressively reduce emissions, calling it an opportunity for both businesses and climate. It cited International Energy Agency estimates that the industry could eliminate more than 75 percent of its methane emissions with existing and well-known technology.

Even so, levels of methane in the atmosphere have continued to rise. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recorded the fourth-largest annual increase last year since measurements began in 1983. Levels are now 2.5 times what they were in preindustrial times.

‘Unacceptably high level of annual emissions’

The industry has made strides in producing oil and gas with less emissions, but only limited improvement, according to the IEA. Browne said what the United States is introducing – incentives passed by Congress last year and now the new regulations from the EPA – are the types of policies that can spur progress.

“In our view, we are at a constant but unacceptably high level of annual emissions from the energy sector,” Tim Gould, the IEA’s chief energy economist, said in a phone call with reporters. “We still remain far above where the industry should be given the ease with which these emissions can be abated.”


Regan said that Biden was taking “strong action” Saturday. “We’ve crafted these technology standards to advance American innovation and account for the industry’s leadership in accelerating methane technology,” he said in a statement.

The changes largely match what the EPA rolled out in phases over the past two years, and what environmental groups had requested. They include a phaseout of flaring at new wells; requirements for more leak monitoring with the help of new technology; limits on emissions from vulnerable equipment such as valves, pumps, and storage tanks; and a program to spot giant, unintentional releases that are often short-lived but the biggest sources of methane emissions.

“Even as we press to phase out our reliance on fossil fuels, we must work to clean up existing operations rapidly and rigorously, and today’s announcement does just that,” said White House National Climate Adviser Ali Zaidi.

The agency also will issue first-time guidance to states that will have to set reduction requirements on existing sources of methane. The Clean Air Act places the details of such plans in the hands of state agencies, and the EPA is giving them two years to complete those plans under these new rules, the federal agency said.

It estimates the rule will cut methane emissions 80 percent from what would have been expected without the rule. That is an increase over what it had originally projected. That is because it strengthened provisions since then to further limit flaring, among other improvements to its method for analyzing the rule package’s impacts, the agency said.

“They’re the strongest methane regulations on the planet,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund.

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