In North America, growing cohesion on environment


As concerns mount about a great unraveling in Europe, the growing political cohesion in North America will be on display this week as President Obama sits down with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the North American Leaders’ Summit in Ottawa. Top on the agenda is a set of energy and environmental strategies intended to strengthen all three economies while defending their citizens’ health and the region´s natural resources.

At a time when some are fixated on closing borders, it’s the opening of a more unified energy market — and the need for comparable policies to protect the environment and ensure fair competition on a level playing field — that’s driving the conversation. This makes sense because shared markets don’t work well when companies are able to exploit differences in countries’ safeguards. Without common standards, it’s a race to the bottom.

The U.S. and Canadian energy markets have operated in closer alignment for some time. The big new variable is President Peña Nieto’s sweeping overhaul in the laws governing Mexico’s energy sector, to modernize and make it more competitive. Under the new rules, Mexico’s oil industry will be open to both private sector and foreign investment for the first time since it was nationalized in 1938. So it is critical to establish strong and effective rules on par with the country’s North American partners.

One item especially ripe for action at this week’s summit is national goals for reducing methane emissions across the oil and gas sector. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, with more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe. In recent years, scientists have shown that oil and gas methane emissions — millions of tons worth each year — are a far bigger problem than regulators or industry had recognized.

But that problem also represents a huge opportunity. While cutting carbon dioxide remains critical, reducing methane offers the fastest, most cost-effective means available to slow the pace of warming while longer term CO2 reductions continue. Cleaning up methane also reduces other pollution that threatens the health of people living near oil and gas operations.

In March, Canada declared it would match the U.S. ambition in setting a national methane reduction target of 40 to 45 per cent below 2012 levels by 2025. Both countries are developing rules to achieve their goals. At the summit, President Peña Nieto will underscore Mexico´s existing climate commitments not just by subscribing to a North America-wide methane reduction objective, but by declaring a national oil and gas methane target of its own.

At the end of the day, it is squarely in Mexico’s own interest to ensure that companies operating within its borders meet the same environmental standards as elsewhere in North America. Solutions are extremely cost-effective. Studies show Mexico could achieve a 45 percent reduction at a net savings, by keeping leaking natural gas in the pipes.

Even as we’re cleaning up emissions, of course, world also needs to be moving away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible, reducing energy use and shifting to cleaner sources like wind and solar. To that end, the three leaders are also expected to set an ambitious new goal to obtain half the continent’s electricity from zero-carbon sources by 2025.

With Mexico poised for a crush of new oil and gas development, now is precisely the time to act. By embracing a strong, national oil and gas methane target, the country can make its oil and gas industry both cleaner and more competitive will help solidify Mexico’s place as a world climate leader. Likewise, aligning around a strong clean energy objective will help all three countries reap the environmental as well as economic benefits of a North American partnership.

Fred Krupp is president of the Environmental Defense Fund. Mario Molina is a is a Mexican chemist and co-recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his role in explaining the threat to the Earth's ozone layer.