GLASGOW, SCOTLAND — Methane has been a hot topic at the United Nations climate meeting happening in Glasgow. Last week, more than 100 countries signed on to a pledge to reduce methane 30% by 2030.
The move would limit emissions of a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sounded the alarm about methane earlier this year. Yet at the same time, a Republican Congressional delegation has shown up at the talks to push Texas natural gas as a major climate solution.
While methane is receiving newfound attention on the international stage, at least one activist has been tireless tracking it for decades. Sharon Wilson of Earthworks has visited natural gas sites and used special photographic equipment to make the invisible gas clear to the naked eye. She has been holding the industry accountable for 20 years on this particular pollutant.
Earther sat down with her in Glasgow to talk about her career, her concerns, and how she feels now that methane is taking center stage. Is 30% by 2030 enough? Are pledges like these truly taking the oil and gas industry—which claims it’s open to regulating emissions, but keeps fighting against regulations—to task? We got the inside scoop.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Molly Taft, Earther: Sharon, you’re known as the “methane hunter,” which is an incredibly badass name. But what does that actually mean? How do you explain to people what you do?
Sharon Wilson, Earthworks: I make the invisible oil and gas pollution visible. When the industry started this whole fracking boom thing many, many years ago, they told us that natural gas was a clean energy. And we didn’t know any different, because you can’t see the pollution coming from it. But I use a technology called optical gas imaging. It’s pretty magical. It has an onboard camera, and so it records what it’s showing you in real-time. It visualizes the pollution for us.
Earther: That looks like a camcorder that your dad busts out at a Christmas. [Editor’s note: The chunky camera Wilson was holding costs around $100,000.]
Eather: Where do you go to find methane?
Wilson: In the beginning, the reason that I wanted to do this is because people who were living next to oil and gas would call us up and say, “you know, I’m getting sick. I smell these odors, it’s horrible.” The industry would say, “it’s not us. You can’t see anything coming from our side. It’s clean. It’s the candles and the Windex that you’re using. That’s what’s making you sick.”
Earther: They said that?
Wilson: Yeah, they said that. It’s not the first time that the oil and gas industry has lied to people, so don’t be shocked. But anyway, I wanted to help people who were impacted the way that I was impacted by oil and gas. So I bugged Earthworks for about two years nonstop, and they did fundraising and got a camera. I got a certification. And I started initially helping families and communities who were impacted.
But now it’s so much bigger than that. It’s not about one family or a community. It’s a global issue, and within that global issue, Texas is a really, really bad actor. The U.S. is pretty bad. I have been all over the U.S. and to other countries, so I’ve looked at oil and gas in many many places. And I can tell you Texas is by far the worst of what I’ve seen.
Earther: I actually was going to ask you about regional impacts. You’re from Texas, which has a huge amount of oil and gas production—and therefore methane emissions. Talk to me about how the industry’s response varies by region. Do you think that some producers in different areas are more concerned about this? Do you think it depends on the state government, the kind of regulations that a country or a state might put on producers? What’s been the industry’s response like in Texas versus the rest of the world that you’ve been able to see?
Wilson: Oil and gas pollute everywhere, right? They all pollute. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big company or a small company. I have found all of them polluting, but I do think some companies try to do better. But even if they tried to do better, there are going to be intentional routine emissions. I have had big operators tell me, “do you realize that we’re permitted to release those emissions?” And I’m like, “well, thank you for admitting that.”
There are intentional routine emissions. There are emissions from equipment malfunctions because something is going to break. It’s a gas under pressure, it’s going to blast out. There are emissions from emergencies, like during the Texas freeze when a part downstream in the supply chain breaks, everything upstream gets over-pressurized, and it’s just gonna blast out because it’s a gas under pressure. There are releases that are built into the system.
Earther: Methane has been described as COP26 as the climate “low-hanging fruit.” And there is a perception that I think the industry has encouraged, that it is in their financial interest to stop methane. At the same time, they have been remarkably reticent to let any regulations come into place that would actually punish them for not doing so. Can you talk to me a little bit about if there is a financial incentive for these companies to really tighten up their act or if it’s something that we really do need to regulate to help them reach that point?
Wilson: They’re not going to do it voluntarily. I know there may be some people who disagree with that, but I will tell you, there’s this practice: The oil and gas industry requires their workers to walk up the stairs along a catwalk where there are tank batteries. On top of the tank battery are these hatches. The tanks hold liquids but it has associated gas. All of that gas, it volatilizes it comes to the top. When they open that hatch, it just blast out like a mushroom cloud. Doing this practice is called thiefing the tanks.
There is a recommended practice by the American Petroleum Institute where they can retrofit the tanks and put spigots down at the bottom so they can collect their samples. They can see the level levels in the tanks with bluetooth. But [procducers] will not retrofit these tanks unless it’s mandated.
At least 19 men have died when they open that hatch. If it can kill a grown man on-site, what do you think it might do to your toddler playing in the backyard 200 feet away? They put these things 200 feet away from homes, even sometimes closer than that. It’s not only an impact to the workers. It’s an impact to the community, to the neighbors. And it is an impact globally because we don’t need more methane.
Earther: I think a lot of the folks who may be working on these sites might not even realize that these are things that need to be addressed because the industry normalizes them so much as part of the cost of doing business.
Wilson: Right. And I think some of the people who are making up the rules don’t really realize some of these things either.
I’ve spent 20 years sitting on the side of the road watching oil and gas. I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as just these easy, cheap fixes. I don’t think it’s going to be that easy or cheap.
Earther: I’m glad you brought up how long you’ve been doing this. The IPCC just started talking about methane in a really serious way. A lot of people haven’t really thought as hard about methane for as long as you have. Can you talk to me about the changes you’ve noticed?
Wilson: When I went to the COP in Paris in 2015, no one mentioned methane. I kept bringing it up and bringing it up, and no one mentioned it. I’m really excited that it’s a topic here, and a lot of countries made these methane pledges.
But pledges are not plans. A methane pledge should include a pledge to stop producing oil and gas. I didn’t hear any of those pledges, and I don’t hear a lot of people talking about how we have to get off oil and gas. I don’t think that you can reduce methane by producing more methane.
Earther: I think that for a lot of folks, the messaging of this is that it’s something we can fix easily because the industry is on board and we know how to fix it.
Climate envoy John Kerry just gave a press conference where he talked about how one of the things that gives him hope is that science and tracking technology are much better now and we’re able to more easily pinpoint emissions to a specific location. He touted this Washington Post piece that ran a couple of weeks ago on this one big oilfield in Russia being this huge methane leak as like a great example of how increased attention can hold oil companies responsible.
I thought of you. I was like, “well, Sharon’s been watching for 20 years.” Do you think that if more people start thinking about where specific emissions come from and where methane comes from, then the industry will change?
Wilson: We have to have regulations, the industry is not going to change their act, voluntarily. About that methane leak they saw in Russia; if you can see it from space, that is not a leak. That’s a problem that the media has. The industry came up with the term leak, and they want us to use that term. So we’ve been very, very obedient, and everything is a leak.
A leak is something that is unintentional. What I’m telling you is a lot of these emissions are intentional, they’re routine, they are permitted. If it is an emergency, I guess most of the time it’s more like a fire hose. I don’t call that a leak either. I don’t find a lot of leaks when I’m out in the field. And when I do find a leak, I get really excited about it. You have to get close to see a leak because it’s small. It may seem like semantics, but it’s not really. [Editor’s note: The Post report was on an accidental methane release, but did refer to it as a “leak.”]
Earther: We have this big methane agreement at COP. What has this been like for you? There’s attention on this thing you’ve been yelling about for 20 years, but is there a kind of an undercurrent that we’re not maybe doing enough?
Wilson: I am happy that methane is a topic. More monitoring is fine. But when you have a mammogram, you don’t say, “let’s get more mammograms.” You take action. With monitoring, we know we have a problem. So continuing to monitor without action is like getting a mammogram without action. What we need is action. I’m really kind of mad because I see all these people being happy. And I want to go, why are you happy? The house is on fire. Yesterday was pretty traumatic.
Earther: It’s the start of the conversation for some people, but it’s like the middle to the end of it for you.
Wilson: Yeah, I want it to be the end of the conversation, and it’s like we’re just getting started.