Methane Emissions In US 60% Higher Than Previously Reported, Finds CIRES Study

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CIRES, the Cooperative Institute for Research In Environmental Sciences, is a collaboration between NOAA and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Its latest study, published in the journal Science, finds the US oil and gas industry emits 13 million metric tons of methane from its operations each year. That is 60% more than previously estimated by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

methane emissions“This study provides the best estimate to date on the climate impact of oil and gas activity in the United States,” co-author Jeff Peischl, a CIRES scientist working in NOAA’s Chemical Sciences Division in Boulder, Colorado, according to Science Daily. “It’s the culmination of 10 years of studies by scientists across the country, many of which were spearheaded by CIRES and NOAA.”

Methane is the primary component of natural gas, much of which is produced from fracking. 13 million metric tons of methane have the same climate warming impact as all the carbon dioxide emitted by all US coal fired generating plants in 2015. In fact, methane has more than 80 times the warming impact of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after its release. The new study estimates total US emissions at 2.3% of production, enough to erode the potential climate benefit of switching from coal to natural gas over the past 20 years. So much for natural gas being a “bridge fuel to the future.”

The research was organized by the Environmental Defense Fund and drew on science experts from 16 research institutions including the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Texas Austin. It assessed measurements made at more than 400 well pads in six oil and gas production basins and scores of midstream facilities. Measurements from valves, tanks and other equipment were considered along with aerial surveys covering large swaths of the US oil and gas infrastructure.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. The Obama administration imposed new methane rules before leaving office, but they have been bitterly opposed by the oil and gas industry. Despite being ordered by the courts to enforce the Obama era rules, the EPA continues to seek ways to avoiding enforcement actions. Under Trump, the EPA has become a tool of the fossil fuel industry while abandoning any pretense of protecting Americans from environmental harm. Scott Pruitt and his hand-picked minions believe profits should take priority over climate and health concerns.

“Natural gas emissions can, in fact, be significantly reduced if properly monitored,” says co-author Colm Sweeney, an atmospheric scientist in NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division. “Identifying the biggest leakers could substantially reduce emissions that we have measured. The assessment does suggest that repairing leaks and addressing other conditions that result in the accidental release of saleable methane could be effective.”

But doing so would be too burdensome, the industry maintains. Why reduce the pool of money available to pay dividends to stockholders and fat bonuses to executives just because the seas might rise or some people might die sooner? Environmentalists need to get the priorities straight, they suggest. Only profits matter. All else is just a distraction from the central purpose of all business. Any semblance of ethics has long since been eradicated from the lexicon of big business.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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