Why we should focus on methane; not carbon dioxide
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.