Plugging Methane Leaks Must Be a Priority

Methane hot spot

Four Corners methane ‘hot spot’

Take a look at the image at the top of this post. It shows a map of methane emissions into the atmosphere across most of the U.S., as determined by satellite measurements. See that nasty red splotch in the Southwest? That’s a huge hot spot of methane emissions into the atmosphere — all coming from New Mexico’s San Juan Basin, a major producer of natural gas.

Between 2003 and 2009 this one relatively small region released more than 4 million metric tons of methane — a greenhouse gas with more than 20 times the global warming potential than carbon dioxide. . That was 10 percent of all U.S. methane emissions during the period, according to a study released last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. And the culprit is NOT fracking. These are old-fashioned, un-fracked wells drilling for conventional oil and gas deposits.

“While fracking has become a focal point in conversations about methane emissions, it certainly appears from this and other studies that in the U.S., fossil fuel extraction activities across the board likely emit higher than inventory estimates,” says Eric Kort, lead author of the report, in a press release.

Curbing climate change requires drastic changes in current practices. If we are to “avoid dangerous interference with the climate system,” we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70 percent compared to 2010-levels by 2050, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The EPA’s Natural Gas STAR program is a clearinghouse for industry best practices and technologies for reducing emissions. The president made reducing methane emissions a priority in his Climate Action Plan. All the tools are there, now we need action.

Methane is carbon dioxide’s lesser known partner in crime in causing climate change. Methane represents 7% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions compared to carbon dioxide’s 91%. However, methane’s 100-year global warming potential is 21 times that of carbon dioxide.

The Obama administration is considering whether methane emissions should be regulated under the Clean Air Act. Considering we have the technology for monitoring emissions and some states, such as Colorado, already regulate it, this decision should be a no-brainer. Unless methane emissions are reduced, natural gas is almost as dirty an energy source as coal.

Industry argues  that additional regulation is unneeded and too expensive. But self-policing, as advocated by the American Petroleum Institute, is obviously not working. From 2011-2013, the EPA reports U.S. greenhouse gas emissions declined 3.9%, but emissions from the oil and gas sector increased slightly.

It’s true that additional regulation would add another burden to companies already taking on debt just to drill. However, companies in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are already monitoring and reducing emissions in accordance with state laws or air permits. They seem to be doing fine. In order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, fixing correctable problems, such as methane emissions, must become the new business as usual.

Reducing global greenhouse gas emissions to keep warming under the 2°C  threshold agreed upon in Copenhagen in 2009 will take time —  time that is quickly running out. We must act now to apply existing solutions to obvious problems like methane emissions.

Update (09/11/14): Changes made for clarity and flow.


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