Methane: Lying Liars And The Lies They Tell Us

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Methane and natural gas are one and the same for all intents and purposes — methane represents about 90% of what we customarily call natural gas. It burns cleaner than coal, which is why it is billed by the industry as a “bridge fuel to the future.” In other words, while the world waits for renewables and energy storage to replace thermal generation, burning natural gas is better than burning coal.

Methane Emissions
Credit: Global Carbon Project

Oil and gas have a strange relationship. Some companies drill for natural gas but others drill for oil. Unfortunately, natural gas and oil often occur in the same locations. When oil is found, the natural gas is released but oil drillers don’t want it. They have made no provisions for capturing it, compressing it, or transporting it. For them, it is a nuisance and so they allow it to vent directly into the atmosphere or burn it onsite. Either way it is wasted in a way that has dire consequences for the environment.

Methane does not stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide but it is up to 80 times more powerful when it comes to trapping heat than CO2. In other words, the people who release the methane recklessly into the air are subjecting us all to more wildfires, rising seas, and powerful storms because there are no laws preventing them from doing so. According to NASA, about 25% of the increase in average global temperatures since the start of the Industrial Revolution are attributable to an increase in methane in the atmosphere, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

Under President Obama, the federal government instituted regulations that would restrict the ability of the oil and gas industry to release methane into the atmosphere but those regulations made extracting natural gas more expensive. The larger energy companies generally supported such regulations but the smaller companies, the ones who drill hundreds of new fracked wells a year and then move on, complained bitterly about the new rules. There complaints found a sympathetic reception with an Environmental Protection Agency overloaded with fossil fuel industry advocates, who moved aggressively to roll back the Obama era rules.

The industry told the EPA that methane leaks were not a big issue, that they had the problem well under control. But they lied to the government. At the same time they were saying officially methane leaks were minuscule, they were privately admitting to themselves that such leaks were a huge problem. The penalty for lying to the government? So far, nothing. While we watch in horror as the California, Oregon, and Washington burn, these people conspired among themselves to make the problem of an overheating planet worse so they can continue to make money. Their conduct may not be illegal but it is definitely despicable.

A Secret Recording

We wouldn’t know anything about this if one member of the group had not made an audio recording of a meeting a year ago of the Independent Petroleum Association. While the group was telling the EPA there was nothing to worry about, they were telling themselves something entirely different. Recently, the person who made the recording make it available to what the New York Times calls “an organization to tracking climate policy.” Neither the official who made the recording nor the organization involved wish to be publicly identified for fear of reprisals.

The recording runs for an hour and 22 minutes and it provides some startling revelations. According to the New York Times, which has listened to the audio, Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, told those in attendance, “We’re just flaring a tremendous amount of gas. This pesky natural gas. The value of it is very minimal.”

And yet, a few months later, James D. Elliott, a lawyer representing a coalition of oil and gas groups led by the Independent Petroleum Association including the North Dakota Petroleum Council, sent a letter to the EPA saying, “The oil and natural gas industry has a pure economic incentive to prevent every molecule of ‘pollutant’ from escaping to the atmosphere.” Elliot was partially correct, which is how lies get told without being obvious. Companies that drill for gas do have an economic incentive to collect and sell as much of it as they can. But to oil producers, it is just a nuisance, one they can’t be bothered to do anything about. Because our economic system imposes no obligation to include the cost of the harm done by industry, those costs cans simply be ignored.

Ness said flaring is a “huge, huge threat” to an industry public relations program that promotes natural gas as a bridge fuel to the future. The problem, he said, is all these young people who get their knickers in a knot over global warming. How can they be handled so they don’t queer the deal for drillers making a ton of money doing what they do? “What’s our message going forward?” he asks. “What’s going to stick with those young people and make them support oil and gas?” In public, Ness has called the stronger rules put in place by the Obama administration “an unnecessary burden,” saying the industry already produced “valuable energy resources in a responsible manner.” What is responsible in Mr. Ness’ view may seem highly irresponsible to others, especially those who prefer to leave a habitable world to their heirs.

Ryan Flynn of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, told the meeting, “Young voters, female voters, Hispanic voters, really every sector except for older conservative male voters…..their No. 1 issue when it comes to our industry is always going to be environmental stewardship, and concerns about what we’re doing with the environment.”

Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, made the groups problem with young people even plainer. “Hippies were going to change the world, until they wanted to get a job and buy a BMW. In Colorado, we’ve been kind of playing a game of whack-a-mole. We went from where fracking was the dirty word and contaminated your water. And we inundated them with information about that and blitzed the TV airwaves. Then slowly that changed into a health and safety messaging. And so we’re ramping up our health and safety messaging.”

Climate change is “the prism through which everything is being viewed,” Haley said. “We have to be comfortable talking about it, talking about how we are part of the solution through natural gas. And again, hitting people with emotions hitting them where they’re where their heart is.” Those damned activists don’t play fair, he complained.  “They don’t show explosions. They don’t show rigs. They show women and children. We have got to begin playing at that same emotional level or we will not win these battles.” Is Haley really saying the fight to save the human race from extinction is just a distraction from the main job of all business — to make a profit by whatever means necessary?

Scott Prestidge, a spokesman for Haley, told the New York Times his comment about about hippies was “said tongue-in-cheek.” He added, “In Colorado, the men and women of this industry live and work within the communities where oil and natural gas are being developed. They care about clean air, clean water, and in protecting their family’s safety and their community.” Sure they do, Scott. Just as long as they can continue to do business as usual, they sleep peacefully at night knowing what they do for a living will impact the health and safety of their children in years to come. Doesn’t get any more caring than that.

Vote For The Earth

In less than 2 months, you will have a chance to vote for a president who will throw the oil and gas prostitutes out of the EPA and restore some semblance of reality to America’s approach to our overheating planet. If there was a computer program that let you design your ideal presidential candidate, would it be Joe Biden? Probably not. But the alternative is an administration that continues to give the fossil fuel industry everything it asks for and jeopardizes the future of our planet. This election is not about flesh eating Democratic pedophiles or whether we should all be mainlining Clorox to fight the pandemic, it is about restoring respect and dignity to America and addressing climate change in a sober, serious, and effective fashion. Please do your part. Vote!

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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." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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