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Exxon Aims to Cut Methane Leaks, a Culprit in Global Warming


HOUSTON — Exxon Mobil announced a program on Monday to reduce emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from its oil and natural gas production and pipeline operations across the United States.

Methane has many sources, including decomposing landfills and ranch operations. But the oil and gas industry is most likely the biggest emitter of leaked methane, a greenhouse gas that traps more than 80 times as much heat within the atmosphere as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, though it dissipates more quickly.

Exxon Mobil is the nation’s biggest producer of natural gas, so its program to make repairs, monitor operations for leaks and replace leaky equipment may serve as an example for the industry. Several large gas producers are moving forward with methane control programs, but others have resisted the effort as too burdensome.

Sara Ortwein, president of Exxon Mobil’s gas subsidiary XTO Energy, said in a statement that the goal of the Exxon program was “to continually reduce methane emissions.” She added that the company would “look to develop and deploy new, more efficient technologies.”

Cutting emissions from leaks is important in bolstering the reputation of natural gas as a clean fuel compared with coal. By some estimates, the American energy industry lets enough natural gas escape each year to meet the heating and cooking needs of about seven million homes. Over two decades, that runaway gas has about the same impact on global warming as 240 coal-fired power plants, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

After completing a pilot project in West Texas, Exxon Mobil is planning a three-year effort to phase out gas-powered controls that manage oil field valves and pressure and flow systems but regularly release methane into the atmosphere. The company is testing controls that use compressed air rather than gas.

The company said it had evaluated the use of aircraft-mounted leak detection equipment to survey production and transport facilities, and was assessing the use of satellites and drones for detecting leaks.

Mark Brownstein, an Environmental Defense Fund vice president who specializes in energy and climate matters, praised Exxon Mobil for the effort.

“At a time when others are trying to claw back basic protections and make excuses for inaction,” Mr. Brownstein said, “this kind of company responsiveness to local community, investor and advocate concerns is refreshing.”

The Exxon Mobil announcement comes as several state attorneys general are investigating allegations that it misled investors and the public about the risks of climate change.

Over the last decade, there has been a frenzy of drilling in oil and gas shale fields across the country, providing an abundance of gas for domestic needs but also for export. Cheap gas reduced the country’s dependence on coal for power, and it has helped give rise to a booming petrochemical industry on the Gulf Coast.

But critics have asserted that experts have underestimated leakage of methane and its effect on climate change.

The Obama administration began a crackdown on methane emissions, an effort the Trump administration has sought to roll back. A federal appeals court ruled in July that the Environmental Protection Agency could not suspend a rule to restrict methane emissions from new oil and gas wells, and then in a second decision ordered the Trump administration to continue enforcing Obama-era rules.