Natural gas is often released — or burned, as pictured here — in the production of crude oil, contributing to global climate change.
Natural gas is often released — or burned, as pictured here — in the production of crude oil, contributing to global climate change. - 

Among the many announcements at Climate Week in New York comes this news of strange bedfellows: A partnership between some leading environmental non-profits, including the Environmental Defense Fund, and five oil companies. The companies agree to work at cutting emissions of methane—a potent greenhouse gas—in the process of exploration and drilling. 

These oil companies aren’t household names in the United States, but they’re big, like the national oil companies of Mexico and Norway. The absence of “super-majors” like BP and Exxon isn’t the potential weakness that concerns Stanford geophysicist Mark Zoback, who served on an Energy Department panel on shale gas safety.

"You have to understand, it’s not the companies you know," he says with a laugh.  

Rather, big problems may come from small-timers, who operate under a variety of state regulations and ethical constraints. The U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates there are as many as 15,000 oil and gas drillers, most of them relatively small time. An agency report showed almost half a million active natural gas wells in 2012.

"There’s so many wells being drilled, and there’s so many companies in the process," says Zoback. "It only takes a few bad actors to cause problems."

Nathaniel Keohane, vice president of international climate at the Environmental Defense Fund, agrees that there are limits to what this particular initiative can achieve. "We think that by starting with this group and expanding it over time, we can start to make progress and demonstrate what’s possible," he says. 

Follow Dan Weissmann at @danweissmann