In the spirit of the Season of Creation, I’d like to reflect on the complexity of the climate crisis today by looking at the story of Methane. Methane is a naturally occurring gas that comes from everywhere – us, cows, marshes, rice patties, rotting rubbish in landfills, and permafrost, as well as wells and pipelines. It’s considered a greenhouse gas with a “high global warming potential.” It’s also the primary ingredient of natural gas.
As scientists learned about the environmental problems associated with carbon, like coal, they found that natural gas (composed primarily of methane) was a good alternative. Methane does burn cleaner than any other fossil fuel producing fewer greenhouse gases when burned than oil or coal. That’s good and why it’s become so popular. It’s a large reason why the coal industry is declining. In fact, the Department of Energy reported that for every 10,000 U.S. homes powered with natural gas instead of coal reduces annual emissions of 1900 tons NOx, 3,900 tons of SO2, and 5,200 tons of particulates which translates into reductions in problems like asthma, bronchitis, lung cancer, and heart disease. Great!
But there’s a problem. When methane leaks into the environment its heat-trapping effects are very strong – 100 times more potent at trapping energy than carbon dioxide, the principal contributor to man-made climate change. This is called the “global warming potential” and indicates the amount of global warming that is caused by that substance.
So where does all this leaking come from? The gas infrastructure is the biggest culprit – leaky pipes, spillage at the well site, improper installation or maintenance of infrastructure. Methane is leaked during extraction, storing, and burning. Unfortunately, a lot more is leaking than originally forecasted. (As an aside, most natural gas today is gained from fracking and that process causes many more environmental problems.)
A study published in the journal Science in 2018 concluded that the amount of methane leaking from the nation’s oil and gas fields may be 60% higher than official estimates. This means that 2.3% of all natural gas produced in the nation is leaking during production, processing, and transportation of oil and gas each year. That’s a lot of heat holding gas.
To make matters worse, the administration has just proposed eliminating federal requirements (from the Clean Air Act) that oil and gas companies control these leaks. Any of the benefits from using natural gas to protect the environment from the effects of greenhouse gasses will now be destroyed. The EPA acknowledged that this proposal, if adopted, would result in the release of an additional 370,000 tons of methane annually, the equivalent of the emissions of 1.8 million additional cars per year. In fact, scientists are worried because as the planet warms, even more methane will be released from soils or other places adding to the global warming problem.
If we are going to make a difference in this global climate crisis, state and federal regulation protecting us – all of us – must remain in place and be enforced.