While environmentalists have (rightly) focused on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, methane has flown under the radar as one of the more dangerous greenhouse gases.

Inger Andersen, the United Nations’ environment chief, said at the recent COP26 negotiations, “Cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years.”

Right here in Montana, there are ways to reduce extraction and use of methane at local and state levels. At the Montana Environmental Information Center, this effort is quickly becoming one of our highest priorities to combat the climate crisis. Here’s what you should know, and how you can be part of this climate solution.

Methane gas is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide in warming the atmosphere over a 20-year period. The U.S. must reduce its reliance on methane gas by 3% every year – and peak methane use should occur by 2020 (last year) – if we are to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as was agreed to in the Paris Accord.

Currently, Montana’s largest power utility is going the other direction. With our state’s average temperatures increasing faster than the global average, this makes NorthWestern Energy’s push for more methane gas plants, including one on the banks of the Yellowstone River near Laurel, even more concerning.

The Laurel Generating Station would do more than just emit harmful air pollutants such as benzene, formaldehyde and sulfur dioxide: Each year, it would also add 769,706 tons of greenhouse gases into our climate. And as cities like Missoula, Bozeman and Helena, all served primarily by NorthWestern, have committed to 100% clean electricity by 2030, more gas-powered energy on the grid directly opposes these communities’ climate goals.

To make matters worse, extracting and transporting methane gas is equally as dangerous for climate, ecosystems, and human health. Venting and flaring at oil and gas wells is a known source of greenhouse gases, and methane pipelines in the U.S. leak at an average rate of 2.3% per year.

NorthWestern’s Laurel Generating Station would require fuel from a converted oil pipeline that starts in Wyoming and eventually runs under the Yellowstone River. The plant itself would be just 300 feet from the Yellowstone, across from Laurel’s Riverside Park. All of this adds up to trouble for the climate, the community of Laurel, and all Montanans who have a right to a clean and healthful environment.

At the national level, stronger methane regulations got a strong start but seem to have stalled. One of President Biden’s first actions was to place a moratorium on new oil and gas leasing on federal lands in order to analyze the climate impacts of the methane emissions. The federal leasing system is fraught with problems, including weak climate and environmental protections, and bargain basement prices for drilling on federal lands.

Unfortunately, when the moratorium was issued, oil and gas companies and industry-friendly states (including Montana) filed a slew of litigation, and a Louisiana judge ordered the resumption of federal leasing activity.

While the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has been leasing parcels without concern for methane, the EPA recently proposed a rule that will regulate methane emissions from oil and gas companies. The EPA is accepting comments until Jan. 14, 2022 - do add your voice!

In the meantime, President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has some major implications for Montana. These funds could help push the state away from methane-fired power toward more electric and renewable generation. Significant funds have been earmarked for establishing electric vehicle charging station infrastructure, weatherization assistance, education, and grant opportunities for energy infrastructure improvements.

While we need to continue to push for strong methane regulations at the state and federal levels to protect our climate, reducing methane use at home can also protect the climate, your health, and your wallet. The Montana Public Service Commission recently warned that home gas prices could increase 47% to 62% this winter, so here are some ways to start using less gas in your home:

  1. If you have a gas furnace, improving insulation in walls and around pipes, installing a programmable thermostat so you don’t use gas when you’re not home, insulating or upgrading windows, and sealing gaps around windows and doors can help heat (and energy) stay in your home.
  1. Replacing your gas heater with a modern electric one can give you more control over which rooms are heated throughout your home. Heat pumps are particularly effective for both heating and cooling, and they’re up to four times more efficient. If you’re on a budget, start by using window insulation film and closing your curtains at nighttime.
  1. Hot water heaters are commonly the second most energy-intensive appliance in a household (after the furnace). Electric- and solar-powered hot water heating devices are incredibly efficient and long-lived. If you can’t make the switch just yet, turn down your hot water heater and wrap it in a blanket to prevent heat loss.
  1. We know gas stoves are beloved, but they also emit lots of harmful substances into your home’s air! If you’re not ready to part ways, try using a portable induction burner. Induction cooking is more than twice as energy-efficient as gas and considered much safer. Eventually you can upgrade to a full induction cooktop.
  1. If you’re ready to make the switch completely away from gas, do your homework: some utilities want to charge customers to cancel their gas service. If NorthWestern Energy goes the same route, have a certified serviceperson manually turn the valve off at your home: you don’t have to pay for gas you’re not using.

We also recommend checking out the Electrify Missoula website for more great information on how to move away from methane and towards electrification. Methane is a hot topic of conversation because reducing our reliance, whether in our homes or at the well, is essential for a livable planet. By taking action at the household level and advocating for needed policy change, we can build a healthier and safer Missoula and Montana.

Katy Spence is the Communications & Engagement Director for the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC).

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

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Dec 3 – Missoula Environmental Art Expo. 5-8pm at Missoula Senior Center. Silent auction, free drinks, music. Proceeds from auctioned artwork to benefit HereMT, a BIPOC outdoors group through Missoula Parks and Recreation.

Dec 3 -13 Online Fundraising Auction for the Clark Fork Coalition. River trips, food, outdoor gear.  

Dec 4 (Sat) — Missoula’s WINTER Farmers Market continues in Southgate Mall. Saturdays 9am to 2pm. Until April 23. Also on Wednesdays 4:30- 7pm until Dec 22. 

Dec 16 (Thurs) Climate Smart Missoula’s Year-End Celebration and Smarty Pants Awards. 5 – 6:30pm at the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center’s back patio/alley space (outdoors). All are welcome. Awards at 5:45!

Materials donations to Home Resource keep the wheels of reuse spinning in our community; and remember that everything you need to know about what to do with your unwanted stuff is at www.zerobyfiftymissoula.com.

Find more local activities and events at Missoulaevents.net and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar. And you too can help organize events – here’s the 2021 Calendar of Environmental Awareness Days – month by month breakdown of world day campaigns.