Methane Emissions Down, but Still Causing Climate Change

June 16, 2019

A new study concludes U.S. oil and natural gas site emissions have risen in the past decade, but at lower levels than measured before. Big Oil has jumped for joy, but  methane emissions still up over 150% over pre-industrial levels

A new study concludes U.S. oil and natural gas site emissions have risen in the past decade, but at lower levels than measured before. Big Oil has jumped for joy, but  methane emissions still up over 150% over pre-industrial levels


Methane Emissions Down, but Still Causing Climate Change

Story Transcript

DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News Network from Montreal, Canada.

For years, the fracking boom has sparked a debate about the role that drilling for oil and natural gas in U.S. shale bedrocks plays in worsening the global climate crisis. Now a new scientific study says that perhaps things are not as bad as they seem. Or are they? It depends on who you ask. Conducted by the National Oceanic and Aeronautics Administration, or NOAA, the study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, concludes that methane emissions measured at 20 different oil and natural gas drilling sites showed that between 2006 and 2015, methane emissions rose 3.4 percent, or about three million tons more annual emissions in 2015 compared to 2006.

By way of comparison, a collection of studies organized by the Environmental Defense Fund have shown an increase of over 16 million tons more annual emissions compared to 2006 levels. So that’s quite a discrepancy. Further, just two weeks after the release of the NOAA study, a Cornell University study done in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund concluded that methane emissions from ammonia fertilizer plants are 100 times higher than industry estimates and three times higher than EPA estimates for all industry methane emissions in the United States combined.

Here to break down and explain these scientific discrepancies is Benjamin Poulter. Benjamin is a research scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland. His research focuses on drivers of climate change, including deforestation, methane emissions from tropical wetlands, and the connection between land use patterns and climate change. Thank you for joining us today, Ben.

BEN POULTER: Yeah, thank you for inviting me.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So it’s probably prudent to start out with the politics of the NOAA a methane study and how it has played so far. The fossil fuel industry’s most powerful lobbying group, the American Petroleum Institute, predictably has celebrated this. It wrote that these are “significant findings and clearly show advances in our industry’s ability to capture increasing amounts of methane during a period of record-breaking domestic natural gas production. A policy analyst for the Heartland Institute, which has historically received funding from the fossil fuel industry and denies climate change, went further. He wrote, “Air quality in the United States has reached a point where new regulations or tighter standards are no longer necessary.” What do you make of these conclusions as a scientist? What does this study actually show, and what are the some of the big takeaways of the latest climate signs of methane emissions from the U.S. oil and gas industry?

BEN POULTER: Well, globally, methane concentrations in the atmosphere are about a 150 percent above pre-industrial conditions. So over the last 200 years, methane has increased from roughly 700 parts per billion to around 850 parts per billion. And methane is a particularly complex greenhouse gas for us to understand, given the multiple sources that methane is emitted from, and these include fossil fuel related activities from oil and gas exploration, from wetlands, and also from the agricultural sector. What we’ve seen since 2007 is a very surprising growth in the atmospheric methane concentrations, which increased again in 2014. And there’s a lot of research being done, like the study conducted by NOAA, to actually understand whether the sources of emissions are coming from oil and gas, whether they’re coming from wetlands, or whether they’re coming from the agricultural sector. Oil and gas emissions account for roughly 30 to 40 percent of the total emissions of methane that are being produced today. And so, there’s a lot of opportunities still for mitigation in this sector.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And the agricultural sector accounts for how much of methane emissions?

BEN POULTER: The agricultural sector accounts for roughly 30 percent. So it’s about 30-35 percent of methane emissions come from oil and gas, 30-35 percent come from agriculture. This includes livestock, the burping of cows is a source of methane, as well as from rice cultivation and the treatment of manure from livestock practices. And then the remainder, about 40 percent of methane, is emitted from wetlands.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now, Environmental Defense Fund said the study had sound science, but also said it raises questions because it “does not address the magnitude of emissions, but only focuses on the trend in emissions that can be estimated directly from atmospheric observations.” Instead, the organization said that many data sources are needed to analyze methane emissions. What are some of the shortcomings of using stationary air measurement sources to collect data on climate change when we’re talking about something like methane, a greenhouse gas dozens of times more potent than carbon dioxide during its first decades in the atmosphere? And for that matter, what are the strengths of the methodology that was used?

BEN POULTER: So one of the challenges with with oil and gas activities is that there are hundreds of wells that are being used or being developed for extracting methane through fracking practices. And only a small percentage, maybe on the order of 1-5 percent of those wells, are producing maybe more than 50 percent of the methane that’s leaking from these activities. And so, we have this issue of super emitters, being able to detect efficiently those super emitters. Airplane campaigns are one way to cover large areas, but still, there’s so many activities taking place that it’s challenging for these aircraft campaigns to comprehensively survey all the oil and gas fields and to detect these super emitters. And so, remote sensing is starting to play a role in terms of covering more kind of wall to wall and getting a larger picture of where the super emitters might be located, but there’s still a lot of work to be done in this area.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So it sounds as though you think that Environmental Defense Fund’s critique has some merit.

BEN POULTER: It’s a very intensive practice trying to detect which of these wells are the super emitters, and so there’s still lot of work to be done in this area.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So how much of all this is an issue of the ability to even get the data itself from production sites? For example, Environmental Defense Fund was criticized for their first landmark climate change and methane emissions study back in 2013 for being allowed onto the production sites of fracking companies on days of the companies choosing. Doing so, said critics, made it a non-random sample and perhaps a day when drillers cleaned up its act. The industry does not just give away this data, particularly if it would make the industry look bad. What problems does that present in terms of getting the data and really understanding the full scope of the issue?

BEN POULTER: The leakage from the oil and gas practices, there’s a lot of kind of temporally varying emissions. And so, day to day, there might be different rates of methane that are being leaked from these activities. So having long-term monitoring, and again, trying to cover these really expansive landscapes that are being used for oil and gas extraction activities is critical. And I think the study highlights the need to be able to have a multi-tiered approach to detecting where these leaks might be taking place. So for example, having in situ monitoring at the site level, but then scaling this up using a combination of aircraft campaigns as well as using satellite observations, and combining these measurements to have a long-term sampling strategy and monitoring strategy to try to reduce these uncertainties.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And finally, Ben, what are some concrete steps you think governments and regulatory agencies can take to curb methane emissions? Is it safe to conclude that a rapid phase-out of drilling for these methane emitting sources is needed, given the rather alarming state of the broader climate science?

BEN POULTER: Well, I would leave that question up to the policymakers and have them make the decisions about what practices would be appropriate for the energy sector.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, we’ve been speaking to Dr. Ben Poulter about a new study relating to methane emissions. Thank you very much for joining us today, Ben.

BEN POULTER: OK, thank you for having me.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News Network.