Methane Is Killing Us. Does Anyone Care? Does Anyone Even Know?

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New satellites that are capable of seeing methane plumes from space are telling a chilling tale. Now all you fossil fuel apologists out there, listen up. Yes, we know methane burns cleaner than coal. But — and this is a huge “but” — exploring for, drilling, compressing, and transporting the stuff causes massive amounts of environmental damage. Some scientists estimate methane emissions in the atmosphere account for 30% of global warming.

The latest research by the International Energy Agency contains shocking news. Well, it should be shocking news to anyone who can put aside Tinder and TikTok long enough to pay attention. In its Global Methane Tracker report for 2022, it says actual global methane emissions are 70% greater than what the nations of the world are reporting.

“At today’s elevated gas prices, nearly all of the emissions [of methane] from oil and gas operations worldwide could be avoided at no net cost. The IEA has been a longstanding champion of stronger action to cut methane emissions. A vital part of those efforts is transparency on the size and location of emissions, which is why the massive under-reporting revealed by our Global Methane Tracker is so alarming,” Fatih Birol, head of the IEA, tells The Guardian.

Last year, leaks from fossil fuel operations amounted to as much gas as Europe burns for power in a year. If that methane had been captured and used, the current gas crisis and soaring prices could have been largely avoided, the IEA says. Its findings show there are few excuses for countries to stall on plugging leaks, which come from poorly maintained pipelines and badly managed production facilities. The technology needed to eliminate leaks is widely available. Norway, for instance, has some of the world’s best oil and gas infrastructure, having introduced strict regulation on its industry.

Christophe McGlade, lead author of the IEA report, says governments needed to step in to ensure companies used the technology. “One reason companies don’t is a lack of awareness of the problem, or a lack of awareness of how cost-effective abatement is,” he said. In other cases, the company that operates the pipeline or facility may incur the cost of cutting leaks while the benefits accrue to the seller of the gas. “That’s why regulation is very important — policies are needed to correct the market failure, to take on the leaks.”

Scary Government Policies

How dare anyone suggest government policies. Don’t they know that the best government is the least government? If freedom means anything, it means being able to drive on the wrong side of the road if you want to. And to hell with those FAA regulations that tell airlines how frequently they must overhaul their engines or what altitude to fly. The free market — Adam Smith’s unseen hand — will magically cure all society’s ills. If planes crash, customers (those who survive anyway), will simple take their business elsewhere. Except in the case of methane emissions, that hasn’t happened. Hmm… maybe the free market doesn’t work quite the way the purists think it does.

The IEA report says the market value of the methane that escapes is greater than the cost of fixing all those leaks. Not only that, those costs are a one-time investment. Selling the gas that isn’t released straight into the atmosphere will create income from years or even decades. But still the industry can’t be bothered. It’s too hard and there’s so much methane around, no one feels the need to lift a finger to address the issue. See how well free markets work?

Super Emitters

Much of the methane monitoring is being done by the European Space Agency. A study published in the journal Science this week concludes that super emitting events represent 8 to 12% of global methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Those emissions are not included in most national greenhouse gas inventories and eliminating them would be equivalent to removing 20 million gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles from the highways and byways of the world.

“These are really, really big events. These are the kinds of things that should just never be happening,” Steven Hamburg, chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, tells the Washington Post. He adds that the new findings highlight how cracking down on super emitters is an important piece in the broader goal of reducing global methane emissions. “But we have to be careful to not say this is the whole problem.”

The bulk of methane emissions from oil and gas comes from less dramatic but more persistent parts of the system, he warns, things like leaking wells, faulty flares, and other infrastructure that collectively have an even more detrimental climate footprint. “It’s necessary to do, but it’s not sufficient,” he said of stopping only the biggest leaks. “It’s only a small slice of a very large opportunity.”

New satellites will be launched this year and next that will expand opportunities to target methane sources both large and small. “It’s a harbinger of what’s to come. Two years from now, we’ll be doing this in a much more robust way, with numerous satellites. Right now, we are seeing just one part of the elephant, but we still need to see the whole thing,” Hamburg says.

The Takeaway

This topic is especially relevant today, as Russia has begun an armed invasion of Ukraine, a move which in turn has prompted Germany to cancel the permits for Nord Stream 2, a methane pipeline that would bring more of the stuff to Europe. Germany made an unholy alliance with Putin more than a decade ago to import methane to substitute for burning domestic coal. It also was a factor in Germany’s decision to shutter many of its nuclear generating stations early.

The flaw in the system is that Germany doesn’t care a fig if methane emissions in Russia are spiking. That’s not Germany’s problem, although it is very much a problem for  the world as average global temperatures inch ever upward. Maybe, just maybe, Germany and the rest of Europe will now realize that their salvation lies in renewable energy that is generated locally. An energy policy that relies on the good will of others is the opposite of energy independence. It is a situation that places one country at the mercy of another. When dealing with a snake like Putin, that is not a good position to be in.

There are signs that Europe has learned its lesson, but it will take years for it to build the renewable infrastructure it needs to secure energy independence for itself. It is learning a harsh lesson in geopolitics. It is hard to understand how the Continent allowed itself to be put in this position.

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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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