Why we should focus on methane; not carbon dioxide

May 19, 2011

Gasoline is above $4 a gallon, a price that makes Americans think the End of Days is approaching. President Barack Obama wants the oil industry to give up a mere $2 billion per year in tax favors, and Big Oil CEOs just told Congress this is out of the question. (Watch CEOs of some of the world’s richest companies cry poor-mouth here).

Huge amounts of shale gas are being discovered in the United States, but does extracting the gas pollute groundwater? In a recent speech, Obama was upfront about all U.S. plans for “energy independence” being just political hot air. And for the zillionth consecutive year, Congress is supposed to enact a comprehensive national energy policy, but instead appears focused on horse-trading subsidies and bailouts.

Is there anything being missed in the endless energy debate?

Yes — methane emissions. Methane is a much worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Methane could be regulated without economic risk, reducing the artificial greenhouse effect and buying society a decade or two of extra time to research ways to control other greenhouse gases.

Instead nothing is being done about methane emissions. This is an orphan issue without a constituency — and the problem is about to get worse.

The primary artificial greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, is mainly a byproduct of burning coal and petroleum, and of deforestation. It is carbon dioxide accumulation that most worries climate change researchers. Though carbon dioxide may not be as hard to address as many assume, with current technology, any strict regulation of carbon emissions would risk harm to the economy.

Methane, a byproduct of natural gas drilling and of rice cultivation, is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. This means that bang-for-the-buck in methane regulation is much better than in carbon regulation. This recent lecture by James Hansen of NASA, the leading academic on the left of the global warming debate, notes methane regulation has more short-term potential to slow climate change than does carbon regulation.

And here’s the beauty of regulating methane — there would be no economic harm. With current technology, cars and trucks need to burn oil, power plants need to burn coal, which makes some carbon emissions inevitable. Many forms of methane emissions, by contrast, could be stopped without any reduction of GDP. Methane leaks from natural gas drilling, for example, don’t serve any economic purpose. Yet methane emissions are essentially unregulated in the United States.

This paper from Robert Howarth of Cornell University argues that the current boom in production of natural gas from shale formations will backfire by releasing large amounts of methane into the air. Natural gas is promoted as a clean fuel: but if shale drilling for gas causes more methane emissions, global warming may accelerate. (Methane is often found in natural gas formations; the two are similar but not identical, with natural gas preferable as a fuel; an objection to the Howarth calculation is here.)

This excellent article by Jesse Zwick in the Washington Monthly argues, “There are proven ways for industry to capture and use methane from natural gas production. But until this is required, it’s hard to make the case that natural gas production represents a huge improvement over burning coal.”

George W. Bush and Barack Obama have spoken in vague terms about an international effort to reduce methane emissions, but nothing specific has happened. Why?

One reason is that the methane threat to the atmosphere is invisible. Wherever entrenched interest groups exist, the contemporary American political system seems incapable of confronting even completely obvious problems, to say nothing of the invisible. The interest group here is oil and gas companies, which want tax favors but not regulation. Year in and year out, energy company political donations buy Congress’s silence on key issues.

Another reason methane goes overlooked is that environmental advocates want global warming concerns framed as blame-America-first. Because the United States energy economy is dependent on coal and petroleum, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are high. Because the European energy economy is dependent on natural gas, European methane emissions are high. By keeping the global warming focus on carbon dioxide, enviros keep the finger pointed at the United States.

As we enter yet another Washington silly season in energy policy — the White House and Congress talking grand change, then renewing all existing sweetheart deals — something must be done to reduce methane emissions. Keeping methane pollution out of the air is the last remaining easy fix for slowing down climate change.

9 comments

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I hope you’ve also had a chance to review the analysis done by ProPublica in January, the first, I believe, to break news about Robert Howarth and about the possibility that gas may be as dirty as coal. http://www.propublica.org/article/natura l-gas-and-coal-pollution-gap-in-doubt

Posted by Writer23 | Report as abusive

Methane breaks down over the long term through oxidation in a process that releases energy. So methane released into the atmosphere is a short term issue, outside of the C02 produced when it breaks down.

CO2 on the other hand requires energy to become Oxygen and a carbon chain. The most common process to get rid of C02 is photosynthesis, which is why you get Carbon offsets for planting trees. Otherwise it is very stable and stays around literally forever.

I’d also argue with methane regulation having no impact on the economy. Cows emit methane and capping their emissions is not a trivial matter like it is with methane from natural gas wells.

Posted by joel.schopp | Report as abusive

Methane as a greenhouse effect warming problem DOES NOT EXIST.
Methane underground already undergoes greenhouse warming from the sea of IR heat radiation that is already underground In other words the methane greenhouse effect is already contributing to the Earths core temperature. Whether the methane is underground or above ground in the air makes no difference.
In order to make it a problem you have to create more methane not just discover that it exists.
This is just more ridiculous non-science put out to justify the global warming FRAUD.

Posted by JDoddsGW | Report as abusive

[...] Why we should focus on methane; not carbon dioxideReuters Blogs (blog)Yes — methane emissions. Methane is a much worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Methane could be regulated without economic risk, reducing the artificial greenhouse effect and buying society a decade or two of extra time to research ways to … [...]

[...] Easterbrook suggests reducing emissions of methane, which is "20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon [...]

Natural Gas IS 80-100% methane. This makes a lot of your article nonsensical e.g. “Methane, a byproduct of natural gas drilling”. Methane is the product of the drilling.

“Methane is often found in natural gas formations” also true but rather obvious in light of the above.

Posted by MikeMcLennan | Report as abusive

Mr. Easterbrook completely, completely misrepresents Dr. Hansen’s paper. Dr. Hansen states quite clearly that the first and highest priority of anyone desiring to slow the rate of global warming is to eliminate coal mining and burning. Period. Period.

He never, ever says that methane is a higher priority or would accomplish more.

Mr. Easterbrook is a liar.

Posted by Dollared | Report as abusive

This article reflects a growing realization among climatologists, especially among paleoclimatologists, that methane has always been the primary driver of greenhouse warmings, and CO2 is usually no more than the trigger.

It’s not merely methane from cattle and gas wells that should most concern us, however; it’s the vast stores of methane in seafloor clathrates, and the vast amount of methane-producing organic matter frozen in tundra. The long-discussed “clathrate gun hypothesis” is being confirmed at every turn, which should give us all pause.

Get used to hearing a lot more about methane. This is a subject we’ll all come to know very well.

Posted by Camper | Report as abusive

Regarding Mike McLennan’s comment above: Methane LEAKAGE is indeed a byproduct of natural gas drilling. Read Howarth’s paper and others.

Posted by Camper | Report as abusive

Water vapor the largest greenhouse gas in the atmosphere by percentage, but its impact is virtually ignored because it does not fit with the agenda.

Posted by godfrey2001 | Report as abusive

Water vapor constitutes Earth’s most significant greenhouse gas, accounting for about 95% of Earth’s greenhouse effect. Interestingly, many “facts and figures’ regarding global warming completely ignore the powerful effects of water vapor in the greenhouse system, carelessly (perhaps, deliberately) overstating human impacts as much as 20-fold.

Posted by kitramsey | Report as abusive