More Methane Hypothesis
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The more methane hypothesis

Will the EPA fulfill its mission by releasing more methane?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a name embracing its primary mission—protecting the environment. After all, their stated purpose on the EPA website is “to protect human health and the environment.” So, I viewed the recent NYT headlines with mixed intrigue and consternation: EPA to Lift Obama-Era Controls on Methane, a Potent Greenhouse Gas. Traditionally, the EPA hired capable scientists. Whether this is still the case under current director Andrew Wheeler is unclear, but being an optimist, I set out in search of the: More methane is better hypothesis.

One carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms—bind them together, and you have methane (CH4), a super greenhouse gas. Because scientists track atmospheric methane, we can confidently say annual emissions of methane steadily increased between 1985 and 2000, and then leveled off. But seven years later, they started rising again, for reasons not fully understood (Jonathan Mingle; Wired)—but back to that in a moment. 

Also, thanks to robust scientific research, we have a reasonable idea of the sources for most atmospheric methane. Mother nature contributes about 40% of the annual methane, primarily from wetlands, and the remaining 60% is from human activity. We humans get up to all sorts of endeavors requiring the release of methane into the atmosphere. Agriculture is the most significant contributor, followed by energy and waste disposal. But within the energy category, leakage from gas/coal extraction and transportation accounts for an annual contribution of 76 million tons, just shy of a quarter of all anthropogenic (human-related) emissions. 

Rising methane levels

Returning to the mystery of why methane emissions started increasing again in 2007, a suspected cause is unreported methane leakage from natural gas wells and gas transport pipelines. With the advent of fracking, the number of wells tapping gas reserves has dramatically increased. An estimated 82,000 fracking wells were drilled in the USA over the past 15 years.

Reporting in 2020 by the New York Times documented significant CH4 leaks at multiple facilities in the Permian Basin, where oil and gas extraction is the primary industry.  Also, in 2018, a 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 tons per hour. The blowout lasted 20 days in total.

The EPA’s current initiative to “protect the environment” will roll back methane reporting requirements for gas extraction and transportation, further increasing methane releases. However, methane still only accounts for 16% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, so why should we worry, since carbon dioxide constitutes the bulk of greenhouse gases.

Methane a super warmer

Scientists worry because methane is a super warmer. The warming potential of various greenhouse gases is measured by comparing them to carbon dioxide (CO2) using a measure called CO2-eq (CO2 equivalent). For example, if actual atmospheric CO2 levels are 410 ppm, but the CO2-eq level is 500 ppm, we then interpret the data to show the warming potential of all gases other than CO2 is equal to a 90 ppm increase in CO2 levels.

The effect of particular greenhouse gases on global warming is a function of two factors: warming potential and lifetime (time in the atmosphere). Methane’s lifetime is short (~12 years) compared to CO2, which lasts for centuries. But methane’s warming potential is up to 87 times greater than CO2. Release a ton of methane into the atmosphere, and over a 20-year period, it has the warming potential of 85 tons of CO2-eq, but over 100 years, the CO2-eq drops to only 35 tons as the original methane leaves the atmosphere.

When I read this bit on warming potential, I thought perhaps it contained answers to the “More methane is better hypothesis.”

Political Mathematics

Recently Trump used some analytical assessments of the COVID-19 crisis to assert the US was doing better than the rest of the world, even though the US COVID death rate per million people is one of the highest in the world. During an interview with Axios’ Jonathan Swan, he pointed out several times the number of deaths was headed down. For example, US daily deaths have been declining, but look at New Zealand, and you will see that their death rate has not declined at all in recent weeks. Clearly, the US is doing better than New Zealand. Maybe Trump-mathematics are being applied to the methane problem.

Wait, I forgot—New Zealand’s weekly death rate is zero. Evidently, they will never be able to match the admirable US decline unless they first raise their death rates (Trump-mathematics). 

The hypothesis 

If you release a ton of methane into the atmosphere, the warming effect will equal 87 tons of CO2-eq over the first 20 years. However, during the next 80 years, you will see a reduction in total warming potential of about 50 tons of CO2-eq. So, if you wanted to double this reduction in warming potential, simply emit two tons of methane initially.

Here we see a hypothesis supporting the EPA’s current direction. More methane now means greater warming-potential reductions in the future. Reductions in warming potential are good for the environment—right?

Back to reality

Foolishness aside, there is no connection between protecting the environment and allowing increased methane emissions. But there may be a connection between allowing more methane releases and Andrew Wheeler’s past work as a coal industry lobbyist, and his persistent work under G.W. Bush, helping to defeat climate-related legislation. Perhaps, though, the EPA’s unstated mission under this administration is “to protect corporate profits at the expense of the environment.”


ArcheanWeb:

More Methane (Source: ArcheanWeb) – https://archeanweb.com/2020/01/22/more-methane/


Sources:

E.P.A. to Lift Obama-Era Controls on Methane, a Potent Greenhouse Gas (By Coral Davenport; The New York Times) – https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/10/climate/trump-methane-climate-change.html   Also:

It’s a Vast, Invisible Climate Menace. We Made It Visible.(By Jonah M. Kessel and Hiroko Tabuchi; New York Times) – https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/12/12/climate/texas-methane-super-emitters.html Also:

Methane Tracker 2020 (Source: IEA) – https://www.iea.org/reports/methane-tracker-2020  Also:

Atmospheric Methane Levels Are Going Up—And No One Knows Why (By Jonathan Mingle; Wired) – https://www.wired.com/story/atmospheric-methane-levels-are-going-up-and-no-one-knows-why/ Also:

Unexpected Surge in Atmospheric Methane (Source: Climate Nexus) – https://climatenexus.org/climate-change-news/methane-surge/  Also:

Methane emissions from burning fossil fuels has been ‘vastly underestimated,’ study says (By Doyle Rice; USA Today) – https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/02/19/burning-fossil-fuels-emits-more-methane-climate-change-study/4798547002/  Also:

Human-caused emissions of methane from the extraction and use of fossil fuels may have been “severely underestimated”, a new study suggests. (By Robert McSweeney, Carbon Brief) – https://www.carbonbrief.org/methane-emissions-from-fossil-fuels-severely-underestimated Also:

Environmental Pollution (Modified) From: Gavin Schaefer (Uxud) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1955961

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.

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