Emissions from Oil and Gas Operations Emit Much More Methane Than Previously Thought

Photo: Sierra Club

CNN and The Guardian reported late last week on a new study published in the journal Nature that concludes that methane emissions from fossil fuels are between 25% and 40% larger than past research had estimated, which means that oil and gas production is contributing roughly half of all greenhouse gas emissions — “far more” to climate change than previously estimated. But there is a silver lining, according to the study’s lead author —  Benjamin Hmiel, a post-doctoral associate at the University of Rochester — who told CNN that “if there’s a larger slice of the pie (of overall methane emissions) under our human agency, that means that we have control over those emissions.”

Why This Matters:  Fracking — which is a huge source of methane emissions in the oil and gas sector — is now at the center of the climate change debate in the Democratic party dividing the moderate and the liberal wings.  Methane is about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide when looked at over a 20-year period.  Methane emissions have skyrocketed since the Industrial Revolution began, but how much of those emissions could be attributed to oil and gas development had been a challenging thing to discern.  This study points to the importance of proper regulation of any and all oil and gas drilling that continues in the U.S. — from the Gulf of Mexico to the Permian Basin of Texas and the fields in Pennsylvania and North Dakota and everywhere in between.  Right now, methane emissions are out of control — as we have written about here — and the Trump Administration’s policies are making them worse.  And they are not just caused by fracking — other types of oil and gas development are extremely “leaky” too.

How Did Scientist Solve the Methane Source Puzzle?

The research team examined levels of methane in the pre-industrial era about 300 years ago by analyzing air from that period trapped in glaciers in Greenland, a sample of which they extracted with a Blue Ice Drill, capable of producing the world’s biggest ice cores.  The new study results also support the theory that oil and gas companies are significantly underreporting their methane emissions, and due to lax reporting and enforcement under the Trump Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it is impossible to know how much.  As we reported last summer, The Associated Press reports that in 2018 statewide methane gas emissions from oil and natural gas production was five times higher than what the petroleum companies were reporting to the EPA.

Why This Is “Good” News

We can stop emissions if we know where they are coming from.  And the technology to trace emissions to their source is becoming cheaper and more readily available from companies like the startup we interviewed, Bluefield Technologies, that uses microsatellites to measure methane gas leaks and emissions.  Unfortunately, the Trump Administration is taking the U.S. in the wrong direction, proposing to ease regulations on methane that would no longer require the industry to monitor for and stop leaks.


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