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The politics of short-lived climate pollutants and North American methane policy

April 8, 2022
Barry Rabe

This paper examines the continued political challenge of developing a robust methane mitigation policy regime in most oil and gas producing jurisdictions in the United States and its North American neighbors. It invokes political scientist Matthew Crenson’s classic characterization of “politically enforced neglect” to explore a political landscape in which climate, environmental health, resource protection, and economic development concerns can be linked to methane venting and flaring but often fail to reach political agendas or engage elected officials, thereby limiting the adoption and implementation of consequential mitigation policies.

Key findings

  1. Several features of methane suggest, at least in theory, that its mitigation in the energy sector could prove more politically amenable to rigorous and durable policy than carbon, including its intensive short-term climate impacts.
  2. However, a 2016 North American Summit agreement to reduce methane emissions in the United States, Canada, and Mexico failed to produce a common continental approach, resulting in highly uneven policies and performance in these nations through 2020.
  3. In the United States, methane mitigation policies remained very modest at the federal level and in most oil and gas production states through 2020, reflecting strong opposition from producing firms in an era of rapid production expansion.
  4. Mexico took significant legislative steps toward methane policy adoption in 2018 but balked in the implementation stages once a new government demonstrated resurgent interest in maximizing oil production while ignoring significant methane emission increases.
  5. Canada went the farthest in honoring a 2016 North American Summit agreement through negotiations with its largest energy producing provinces and by leavening the pacts with sizable transfer payments to producer provinces and firms.
  6. The United States has taken some significant steps in 2021-22 toward a more active methane policy posture, reflecting some expanding state policy innovation and the launch of a series of new federal policy initiatives.
  7. A new US-led international focus on methane, including the 2021 Global Methane Pledge, coincided with growing parallels between Canadian and American methane policy and could position the two nations for global leadership in this area.

This paper is part of the North American Colloquium (NAC), a collaborative venture between the Autonomous National University of Mexico, University of Toronto, and University of Michigan. Established in 2018, the NAC brings together leading academic analysts and practitioners from Mexico, Canada and the United States to address key social and policy issues facing all three countries. Each year, the three partner universities select a theme, and one serves as the host to convene joint activities throughout the year.