The trajectory towards a 100% renewable energy future has been thwarted by the vested interests in the old, entrenched energy and industrial system and veiled in cloaks of climate denialism and technological nihilism. Our progress, therefore, towards achieving a peaceful coexistence with our planet falters. We feel helpless when confronted with the full power of Mother Nature’s revenge as the climate crisis burns, blows, floods, and roasts us with increasing intensity. The cloak of denial and ignorance falls off as more people wake up to the real urgency we are facing. Seven percent emissions reductions every year to avoid the worst is a daunting challenge. Is there any way to buy a little time while we revamp our energy system? Are there any shortcuts or quick reductions we can grasp that are win-win and won’t arouse political backfire from the fossil fuels industries?
Methane emissions reductions may well be that strategy. Methane is our second most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide (CO2). While less abundant, it has a far greater Global Warming Potential (GWP) than CO2, more than eighty times more potent over a twenty-year period. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that half of the 1.0° C net rise in global average temperature since the dawn of the industrial era is due to methane increases. Also, methane is short-lived in the atmosphere, lasting only about ten years. Efforts to stop it from entering the atmosphere, therefore, coupled with its natural degradation, could afford a powerful lever to slow global warming.
Methane, this simplest of hydrocarbons, comprising one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms (CH4), has a vast array of sources. According to the Global Methane Assessment (United Nations Environment Program and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, 2021), roughly 60% of methane emissions come from anthropogenic sources, that is, from human activity. The other 40% comes from natural sources, such as freshwater lakes, wetlands, and other humid environments where methanogenic microorganisms ferment or break down organic matter in the absence of oxygen.
The sources of anthropogenic methane emissions are the fossil fuel industry (about 35%), waste (about 20%), and agriculture (about 40%), though this breakdown may well underestimate the share of the fossil fuel industry. Methane is the main component of natural gas, or fossil gas, used in cooking, heating, and power production.
In light of these ideas, the European Union and the United States launched the Global Methane Pledge (GMP) at the UNFCCC Conference of Parties, COP26, in Glasgow in November 2021. Those who sign it commit “to work together to collectively reduce global anthropogenic methane emissions across all sectors by at least 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030.” (Global Methane Pledge, the website) They also commit to a variety of good practices “to improve the accuracy, transparency, consistency, comparability, and completeness” of their national GHG inventory reporting. This latter effort is a hugely complicated affair since detecting and measuring this invisible gas has turned out to be a multi-dimensional task.
Still, 150 countries have now endorsed the GMP, 50 of these have developed national methane action plans, and even more, have included methane reduction in their Nationally Determined Contributions.
In this article, we shall discuss energy-related emissions.
Indeed, the focus on methane has been increasing in recent years. The European Union started its first methane strategy in 1996, thus, halving its energy-related methane emissions, its waste-related methane emissions by a third, and its agricultural methane emissions by over twenty percent. The European Union only produces five percent of global methane emissions.
As a large oil and gas-producing nation, the US is facing a much greater problem.
In the oil and gas sector, methane emissions can come from many components along the production, distribution, and consumption of oil and gas. The Environmental Protection Agency investigated the average leaks from these components to make a list of “emissions factors” associated with each. Further research, however, showed that the vast majority of emissions come in the form of super-emitting events, events that are occasional and unpredictable. Checking an oil or gas site, sometimes with an infrared camera to see emissions, may show persistent leaks but misses these enormous gas blooms. According to a Democratic Staff Report of the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, the old-fashioned Leak, Detection, and Repair (LDAR) methods are grossly inadequate to adequately grasp that “super-emitting leaks are an immense driver of oil and gas methane emissions, and they are emitting methane at extraordinary levels” (page 25, “Seeing CH4 Clearly,” July 2022).
Oil and gas companies, they contend, need accurate quantification of their emissions to identify the equipment failures that give rise to large emissions, to be able to calculate the value of the lost gas and to meet increasing Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) standards.
Additional layers of surveillance, continual ground sensors, and infrared cameras on drones or on aerial fly-overs can give a far more comprehensive view of emissions, both temporally and spatially. Satellites are the latest tool in the toolbox. The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) monitors global methane emissions and plans to add two more satellites in the coming years. Using cross-checked data, we can more and more accurately identify the sources of emissions, a crucial step in stopping them.
Practices such as gas venting and flaring have come under increased criticism. Venting is the practice of letting off gas directly into the atmosphere. While this may be necessary on rare occasions to avoid an explosion, it is wasteful and environmentally harmful. Flaring is the process of sending the released gas up a tower and burning it, transforming the methane into carbon dioxide, and lighting up large gas fields at night such that they are visible from space. While this has a lower climate impact than venting, often the combustion process is incomplete, and methane escapes into the atmosphere as well. As the satellite images of the night sky dramatically reveal, flaring has become commonplace in the vast Permian Basin of West Texas and New Mexico and in the Bakken Field in North Dakota. Here, methane is considered a waste product by oil developers, who burn it off to get rid of it.
As the Russian war on Ukraine reminds us, fossil gas can have a use value. But flaring gas is both environmentally and economically harmful. As Gabriel Collins wrote in a 2019 Baker Institute Policy Brief, “if all the wasted gas in the Permian Basin was captured and liquefied, it could fill a Q-Max LNG carrier (the world’s largest carrier size) every 10 days. If that vessel went to China and discharged its cargo into a power plant, it could likely displace 440 thousand tons of coal burned to generate electricity.” With half of the carbon emissions as coal, this natural gas could have decreased China’s emissions. The World Bank, Collins adds, estimated that in 2018, “petroleum operations across the entire US flared 14.1 billion cubic meters of gas.”
Is natural gas better than coal? With only half of the emissions of coal, can natural gas be a “bridge fuel” to a future clean energy system? This was accepted wisdom until recently when researchers delved into the question. Researcher Benjamin Hmiel and his colleagues concluded in an article in Nature, 2021 that “we’ve underestimated the methane impact of fossil fuel extraction by up to 40%.” In his 2014 article “A bridge to nowhere: methane emissions and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas,” researcher Robert Howarth concludes that using full life cycle analyses, both shale gas and conventional natural gas have a larger greenhouse gas footprint than either coal or oil. The good news is that this is due to the leaks, and leaks can be detected and stopped.
In 2015, the World Bank launched its initiative Zero Routine Flaring by 2030 to encourage countries and companies to stop this harmful practice. On a voluntary basis, they agree to report their yearly progress, which can now be verified by satellite measurements.
In the US, a patchwork of different policies dominates at the state level. A few states, including Alaska, Colorado, and New Mexico, do not allow routine flaring at all. This means that oil drillers must install pipes to take away the gas when drilling for oil.
The International Energy Agency has attacked the question from a different angle. They claim that reducing the use of fossil fuels is inadequate to address the emissions reductions that the planet requires. Of the 120 million tons of methane emitted by the oil and gas sector in 2020, “it is possible to avoid more than 70% of current emissions with existing technology, and where around 45% could be avoided at no net cost.” (IEA, “Curtailing Methane Emissions from Fossil Fuel Operations”) Indeed, captured and sold gas can increase revenue.
The Biden Administration has launched a whole-of-government approach to the methane problem in its “US Methane Emissions Reduction Plan,” which addresses emissions and leaks from oil and gas, waste, and agriculture.
The Inflation Reduction Act, (16 August 2022) however, raised the stakes considerably by imposing a methane emissions charge of $900 per metric ton, increasing to $1500 after two years, for facilities that are required to report their GHG emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency. This charge is not a payment for the right to emit, but, seen in the context of other measures, provides a nudge for companies to get moving on emissions reductions. Other provisions include grants to help pay for methane-reducing equipment.
Methane emissions reduction is not only a crucial element in our fight to keep the planet from overheating but also has important health benefits for plants and animals (including humans) due to the reduction in other toxic emissions that accompany methane as well as the complicated atmospheric chemistry in which methane plays a role. Methane increases ground-level or tropospheric ozone. While ozone in the stratosphere protects us from too much ultraviolet light from the sun, tropospheric ozone is a health hazard. According to the Global Methane Assessment, if we could reduce anthropogenic methane by 45% by 2030 (or 180 million tons per year), this would avoid nearly 0.3°C of global warming by the 2040s. In addition, it would yearly “prevent 255,000 premature deaths, 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits, 73 billion hours of lost labor from extreme heat, and 26 million tons of crop losses globally.”
Methane emissions reductions should be a top priority in our climate battle. With high ambitions, we could well give ourselves more time to transform the rest of our energy infrastructure.