Environmentalists are criticizing New York Gov. Kathy Hochul for supporting a proposal to change how the state measures emissions of methane, the key component of natural gas and the world’s second-leading contributor to climate change behind carbon dioxide. If passed, opponents say, the measure would undermine the state’s climate law and set a dangerous precedent at a time when research shows the window to prevent runaway global warming is quickly closing.
Under new legislation proposed last week by Sen. Kevin Parker, a state Democrat, New York would calculate the warming effect of methane gas on a 100-year time horizon rather than the 20-year time frame used by the state’s landmark 2019 climate law.
Proponents say the move will spare New Yorkers higher energy bills as utilities begin passing the cost of the energy transition onto consumers. Critics accuse Hochul of caving to fossil fuel lobbyists and call the proposal “magic math,” with at least one estimate showing the change would require New York to cut roughly one-third fewer emissions this decade than currently required.
“The 20-year methane accounting reflects the reality of the climate impact of burning natural gas,” Sen. Liz Krueger, a New York Democrat who chairs the state’s senate finance committee, told POLITICO this week. “It is one of the strongest parts of the (state’s climate law). Giving in to the polluter lobby by weakening our methane accounting will kneecap all our efforts going forward.”
It’s an incredibly wonky and technical change that may fly over the heads of most New Yorkers. But climate experts say the measure, which has become a key flashpoint in the state’s protracted budget negotiations, could ultimately have serious implications for New York’s ability to tackle global warming in the coming decades.
That’s because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that can warm the planet far faster than carbon dioxide—at least over a relatively short timescale. While methane breaks down into CO2 and water in about 12 years, its ability to warm the planet during its short lifespan is tremendous, scientists say.
Researchers found that over a 20-year period, methane is 81 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. After 24 years, its warming impact is roughly 75 times that of CO2. By 100 years, that potency drops to about 28 times, which would still be much more warming than carbon dioxide alone. As a very rough analogy, you can think of methane as cranking your thermostat to its highest setting for an hour before slowly dialing it down over the course of a night. By the next morning, your home will still be hotter than if you had turned the temperature down sooner or simply left the thermostat at a lower setting the whole time.
It’s still unclear exactly how New York’s methane accounting will affect residents’ energy costs, but an early estimate that the Hochul administration shared with New York Focus found that residents could see their utility bills rise by 79 percent and gasoline costs by 61 percent if the state keeps its current standard. The state’s climate council, an appointed group that’s in charge of plotting out how New York will meet the state’s climate law, has argued that those costs, however, are outweighed by the benefits.
Katherine Nadeau, who’s deputy director of the environmental nonprofit Catskill Mountainkeeper and helped develop the state’s 2019 climate law, called the new proposal “magic math,” adding that she worried it “would only embolden” the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to obstruct climate action and send the wrong message to other states. “This would send an awful signal to anybody watching,” she told me in an interview. “If we’re going to lead on climate, then we have got to make a strong run at the mandates we set out in our climate law.”
In many ways, the New York debate over methane accounting is part of a larger national fight as states contend with how they’ll achieve ambitious climate goals, especially regarding hot-button topics like natural gas. While Hochul faces backlash from environmentalists this week, she was previously attacked by Republicans and other fossil fuel advocates after she voiced support for banning natural gas hookups for newly constructed buildings statewide.
New York and Maryland are the only states so far to use the 20-year metric. The federal government uses the 100-year time frame for measuring methane’s climate impact. But climate activists have been pushing to change that, especially in light of the recent United Nations’ climate report that found the world remains far off track in meeting the targets of the Paris Agreement. In fact, recent research from Stanford University suggests that federal officials at the Environmental Protection Agency have radically undervalued the climate impact of methane by focusing on the 100-year metric.
If governments really want to keep the average global warming below the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold, changing how they account for methane emissions is critical, Rob Jackson, an earth system science professor at Stanford and co-author of the study, told my colleague Phil McKenna. “If you want to keep the world from passing the 1.5 degrees C threshold, you’ll want to pay more attention to methane than we have so far,” he said. Otherwise, “you’re not going to put enough value on reducing methane emissions compared to other greenhouse gasses.”
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