Methane, we pump it out of the ground, cows burp it from their digestive system, swamps emit it, and large deposits of solid methane hydrates line the ocean bottoms. Methane is also the simplest of the hydrocarbons with one carbon and four hydrogen atoms (CH4). It is small but powerful. This colorless, odorless, highly flammable gas is used as a fuel around the world, and it is also a potent greenhouse gas.
Currently, methane constitutes about 10 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. However, it accounts for 20 percent of global warming since the industrial revolution. It is more effective in trapping heat than other greenhouse gases.
Methane’s life cycle
Both natural processes and human industrial activity produce CH4. The bacterial driven decay of organic matter in low-oxygen environments, like the swamps and bogs of coastal wetlands, accounts for the most significant natural production of methane (30% of total emissions).
Human activities in mining, transporting, and processing fossil fuels are another significant source of CH4 emissions into the atmosphere. The EPA estimates that about 60 percent of U.S. methane emissions are related to human activity. This 60 percent of total emissions further breaks down into 19% – petroleum industry; 16% – enteric fermentation (cow burps/farts); 10% -landfills; and the remaining 15% is coal mining, manure management, and other small sources.
When CH4 enters the atmosphere, it becomes an immediate agent of warming by absorbing heat from the sun and also soaking up radiant heat coming from the earth. During its first two decades in the atmosphere, it is 80 times more effective than carbon dioxide (CO2) as a warming agent. This atmospheric CH4 breaks down after the first decade but turns into CO2, which will stay in the atmosphere for centuries.
CH4 that doesn’t make it into the atmosphere provides industrial energy in various ways. It is a conventional fuel for electric power generation plants, accounting for 31 percent of the U.S electrical supply. Even though methane is a cleaner fuel than coal, it still produces CO2 and water vapor when burned. Electric cars are good, but they still may have a carbon footprint.
The heat we cannot see
Methane is colorless, odorless, and invisible to the naked eye. Massive leaks of CH4 are invisible under normal circumstances. However, infrared cameras can and do provide dramatic pictures of methane leaks from industrial activity.
Recent reporting from the New York Times documented significant CH4 leaks at multiple facilities in the Permian Basin, where oil and gas extraction is the primary industry. A 2018 methane leak from a blowout at an Exxon Mobil drilling site in Ohio was only detected from space. Satellites detected the methane plume on the 13th day of the blowout, and by then the methane release rate was approximately 120 metric tones per hour. The blowout lasted 20 days in total. This detected rate was nearly double that of the 2015 SoCalGas leak in Aliso Canyon, California.
The fact that fossil fuels are an integral part of our society does not negate the need to produce them responsibly. The economics of methane pollution follow the same pattern as environmental pollution in general. This economic model maximizes profits today by cutting costs and not providing effective pollution control and remediation. This process effectively defers expenses and transfers the remediation cost to future taxpayers. However, it is a model that will not serve future generations well.
The economics of environmental pollution (Source: ArcheanWeb) – https://archeanweb.com/2020/01/02/the-economics-of-environmental-pollution/ Also:
Meth.: The other important greenhouse gas (EDF: Environmental Defense Fund) – https://www.edf.org/climate/methane-other-important-greenhouse-gas Also:
What Is Meth., Anyway? (By Jennifer Leman; Popular mechanics) – https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/environment/a28858699/what-is-methane/ Also:
Meth., explained (By ALEJANDRA BORUNDA; National Geographic) – https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/methane/ Also:
What Types Of Electricity Sources Are Generated In The US? (By Ebony Porter; Direct Energy Blog) – https://www.directenergy.com/blog/types-of-electricity-generated-in-us/ Also:
It’s a Vast, Invisible Climate Menace. We Made It Visible
Catastrophic Ohio Meth. Leak Stayed Hidden Until a Satellite Found It (By Rafi Letzter; Space.com) – https://www.space.com/giant-methane-leak-exxon-pennsylvania.html Also:
Feature Image: Aliso Canyon methane leak (By Earthworks) (Modified) – This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en