Fossil Fuels

Published on October 4th, 2013 | by Guest Contributor


IPCC Warns Methane Traps Much More Heat Than We Thought

October 4th, 2013 by  

Originally published on Climate Progress
by Joe Romm


Methane leaks in Boston area. Yellow indicates methane levels above 2.5 parts per million. Via NY Times.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that methane (CH4) is far more potent a greenhouse gas than we had previously realized.

This matters to the fracking debate because methane leaks throughout the lifecycle of unconventional gas. Natural gas is, after all, mostly methane (CH4).

We learned last month that the best fracked wells appear to have low emissions of methane, but that study likely missed the high-emitting wells that result in the vast majority of methane leakage. Back in August, a NOAA-led study measured a stunning 6% to 12% methane leakage over one of the country’s largest gas fields — which would gut the climate benefits of switching from coal to gas.

We’ve known for a long time that methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2), which is released when any hydrocarbon, like natural gas, is burned.

But the IPCC’s latest report, released Monday (big PDF here), reports that methane is 34 times stronger a heat-trapping gas than CO2 over a 100-year time scale, so its global-warming potential (GWP) is 34. That is a nearly 40% increase from the IPCC’s previous estimate of 25.


Amazingly, the EPA has been using a GWP of 21 for its estimate of how methane compares to carbon dioxide — a figure that is nearly twenty years out of date. That means methane is a whopping 60% stronger than EPA calculates in its GHG inventory. Back in April, EPA finally said it was thinking about raising the GWP — to 25!

EnergyWire (subs. req’d) reports:

“The IPCC presents the scientific consensus, so its conclusions are inherently conservative,” said Hugh MacMillan, senior researcher with Food and Water Watch. “It’s bizarre that the EPA is just now moving to adopt the GWPs from 2005. Is the agency going to wait until 2025 to use these new GWPs?”

If a new GWP of 34 were adopted, the contribution of methane to U.S. emissions would significantly increase.

The revised number means fracking is worse for the climate than we thought and the benefit of replacing coal with fracked gas is lower than we thought. “There is a very real sense in which using dated numbers downplays the problem [from the] oil and gas industry,” MacMillan said.

Significantly, although the 100-year GWP is by far the most widely used, the IPCC drops this mini-bombshell 86 pages into the report:

There is no scientific argument for selecting 100 years compared with other choices (Fuglestvedt et al., 2003; Shine, 2009). The choice of time horizon is a value judgement since it depends on the relative weight assigned to effects at different times.

The IPCC reports that, over a 20-year time frame, methane has a global warming potential of 86 compared to CO2, up from its previous estimate of 72. Given that we are approaching real, irreversible tipping points in the climate system, climate studies should, at the very least, include analyses that use this 20-year time horizon.

Finally, it bears repeating that natural gas from even the best fracked wells is still a climate-destroying fossil fuel. If we are to avoid catastrophic warming, our natural gas consumption has to peak sometime in the next 10 to 15 years, according to studies by both the Center for American Progress and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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  • Doug

    The statement at the end about natural gas consumption needing to peak in the next 10-15 years is interesting. Let’s say we phase out coal power linearly by 2030, a reasonable target. Also, assume that power consumption falls each year by 2% due to conservation and energy efficiency improvements. At what rate would solar, wind, hydro and geothermal power need to grow annually to allow natgas to peak by 2025? This isn’t a difficult math problem.

  • mzso

    What about this?
    Or only FUD news are allowed about climate change?

  • Ivor O’Connor

    This should be a lively article.

    First off the methane breaks down exponentially over time. So using numbers at 100 years is significantly lower than using numbers from the current year. Or over the next five years. Or 10 years.

    Cynical me asks why do most other projections for nuclear, fossil fuels, RE go out 20 years at most. Usually. So we peer into the future about our energy mixes and what the planet temperature will be in 2020 or 2030. Yet when we talk Methane we talk 100 years? This is seriously messed up.

    Still it is good to point this discrepancy out. Even if we are somehow being compelled to fight this fight with our arms and legs tied.

  • Jouni Valkonen

    although methane is more short lived in atmosphere than CO2, it does not disappear from the atmosphere but is just transformed into carbon dioxide.

    But no worries, the cost of solar power is set to go down to one third by 2020. After that natural gas is required only for non-windy night time generation (+ winters in northern latitudes):

    Even if the solar industry stays flat based on dollar volume, lower costs should triple installations by 2020

    • globi

      Please keep also in mind that fossil fuel heating fossil (incl. hot water) can be replaced by flexible heat pump heating (further reducing the need for natural gas and increasing demand response capacity).
      And loads which are currently operated at night (due to lower electricity prices) can be operated during day time (reducing night time demand).
      And interconnected wind farms provide baseload and power transmission over long distances is easy and affordable:
      And wind and PV power surplus can easily be curtailed if necessary.
      And hydro power is flexible and hydro power can be increased without building more dams.

      • Jouni Valkonen

        I think that it is most economical to make synthetic methane from surplus PV and Wind. Curtailing may be necessary however if it is uneconomical to match transmission capacity for peak wind and peak solar.

        • Bob_Wallace

          We’d need numbers to take that past the point of being a thought.

          What is the cost of generating methane, storing it and turning it back into electricity?

          • Jouni Valkonen

            I do not know, unfortunately. And I do not think so that even Internet knows that. However Audi has opened 6 MW pilot plant in Germany. I would guess that they are doing it perhaps not for profit but at least that it pays back the investment. It is not good for Audi’s imago if they cannot make e-gas sustainably as the whole purpose is to make sustainable fuel for NG-cars.

            There are several other synthetic methane pilot projects ongoing in Germany. However there is currently too little wind+solar that it is not yet economical at larger scale, because there is too little surplus electricity at hands.

            Audi opens 6 MW power-to-gas facility

            Anyway, my bet is that when there is 300 GW solar peak power in Germany in 2020’s and the demand is only 60 GW, this means that that there is enough surplus electricity production for synthetic methane to be profitable.

            I doubt that methane can compete with advanced low cost batteries in 2020’s, but methane as such is very useful, because it is easy to synthesize jet fuel and gasoline from methane. Qatar airways already synthesizes most of their jet fuel from natural gas.

          • Jouni Valkonen

            This article did not say it, but the conversion efficiency from electricity to methane is 60 %.

            But Audi stated: “the commercial application of this new power storage technology. In the coming years, we will provide the market with plants of up to 20 MW of electrical power input and reduce investment costs to the necessary level for energy management applications.

          • Ivor O’Connor

            Heindl has gone on record earlier this year in TED talks stating we only get 25% of the energy back. See starting at 6:45 into the video.

            Keep in mind we already have the infrastructure to work with methane and will need very little of it back in terms of electricity. Most will be used for the transport sector like you say. For powering jets and the like.

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