What are the Effects of Methane Emissions and Why Should We Care?
What are the effects of methane emissions? That’s the multi-million dollar question in the world’s battle over global warming as methane was often overlooked in the climate change conversation for decades.
And this could be dangerous because the gas is so much more powerful than carbon dioxide in warming the planet.
Methane is a “short-lived climate forcer” (SLCF), meaning its effect is short-lived, about 12 years, but is particularly destructive. In fact, one ton of methane has about 80x the warming potential heat-trapping ability of a tonne of CO2.
Experts further say that methane emissions are responsible for about 30% of today’s climate change. The gas also poses health hazards to people, which can be deadly.
Yet, the trends of methane emissions in the U.S. and worldwide are heading in the wrong direction.
The good news is that there’s a growing recognition among the scientific and political communities that reducing methane is critical in fighting climate change.
Cutting methane emissions is the fastest option we have to slow the pace of global warming right away, even as we decarbonize the world’s energy systems.
It’s an opportunity we shouldn’t miss.
So, how can we address the methane problem and mitigate or reduce its emissions? This article will explain how focusing on the major sources of methane and providing some key players in the space.
But before that, let’s first get to the basics by tackling what methane emissions do, why it’s bad for the environment, where it comes from, what sectors produce the most methane, plus some projections.
Why Methane and What Does Its Emissions Do?
Why is methane bad for the environment?
Methane (CH4) is the second most abundant anthropogenic or human-related greenhouse gas (GHG) after CO2. As already explained, methane is a potentially destructive gas that has a more powerful near-term warming effect than CO2.
As a result, methane emissions contributed to about ⅓ of the increase in today’s GHG warming since pre-industrial times. And it’s growing faster than at any other time ever since record-keeping started in the 1980s.
Global Methane Emissions Trend Since the 1980s
Apart from driving climate change, methane also poses acute and chronic hazards to human health.
The gas is explosive within certain ranges, presenting a safety hazard for people living in places with high methane concentrations. These particularly include areas around oil and gas facilities, coal mines, and some agricultural settings.
Methane is also the primary contributor to ground-level ozone, a.k.a. smog formation, another GHG and harmful air pollutant. It’s often linked to various public health impacts such as asthma, weakened lung function, and cardiovascular diseases.
Alarmingly, exposure to smog causes 1 million premature deaths each year.
A study found that reducing 1 million tons of methane emissions may lead to a reduction of 240 to 590 premature deaths worldwide.
With these facts, it’s no surprise that individuals living near areas of high methane production have poorer health conditions and poorer quality of life.
So, what, or we’d rather say, who do we blame for all the planet-warming effects and health dangers of methane? We’ll know by discovering where methane comes from and what sectors in the U.S. emit most of the gas.
What Produces the Most Methane Emissions?
Over the past 200 years, methane concentrations in the air have more than doubled mainly because of human activities. These emissions have gone up alarmingly, which scientists think may be the biggest threat to keep global temperatures below 1.5°C.
There are two main culprits for releasing CH4 into the atmosphere – natural and anthropogenic sources.
Natural sources are:
wetlands that are poorly managed are the biggest natural source, releasing methane from microbial decomposing activities
reservoirs and ponds with high organic matter and low oxygen levels
Other small natural sources of CH4 emissions include oceans, sediments, wildfires, volcanoes, and termites.
Anthropogenic sources are:
Agriculture – livestock raising
Energy – oil and gas systems, coal mining
Waste management activities – landfills and wastewater treatment
The International Energy Agency estimated methane emissions from both sources as shown in the chart from its Global Methane Tracker.
Sources of Methane Emissions, Natural, and Anthropogenic
Source: International Energy Agency (IEA CC BY 4.0)
The largest anthropogenic source is agriculture, responsible for about a quarter of total CH4 emissions. The energy sector follows closely, which includes emissions from coal, oil, natural gas, and biofuels. Emissions from waste are the third biggest anthropogenic source.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 50-65% of total methane emissions come from anthropogenic or human activities. The agency also reported that CH4 accounted for 12% of all anthropogenic emissions in the U.S.
The following pie shows the US CH4 emissions per source, per EPA data.
U.S. Methane Emissions, By Source
Same with global emissions, the largest anthropogenic source of methane emissions in the US are agriculture (33%), combining enteric fermentation and manure management emissions.
Natural gas and petroleum systems (29%) are the second biggest source of CH4 emissions in the country.
The gas is emitted during the production, processing, storage, transmission, distribution, and use of natural gas; while the production, refinement, transportation, and storage of crude oil releases the gas. Coal mining is also another significant source (6%).
Methane is generated in landfills as waste decays and in the treatment of wastewater. Landfills are the third largest source of CH4 emissions (15%) in the US from decaying wastes. Domestic and industrial wastewater treatment also emits methane.
Though CH4 emissions from oil and gas systems come second overall, they’re the largest industrial source of methane. That’s why President Joe Biden directed the EPA to issue regulations under the Clean Air Act to reduce the oil and gas industry’s methane emissions.
Plugging the Super-Emitters
The Biden administration has supercharged existing efforts by pouring billions to address the methane problem.
The big effort, thus far, is to plug over 4 million abandoned and orphaned oil and gas (AOOG) wells spread across the 26 states. This well-plugging program is worth almost $5 billion under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act 2022.
Most of the abandoned wells, about 22%, are found in Texas, while in Canada, 67% are in Alberta province.
These abandoned, unplugged wells are leaking methane, estimated to be equal to burning over 16 million barrels of oil. But several studies reported that these emissions are likely underestimated due to uncertainties in the total number of the wells and their associated CH4 emissions.
Good thing advanced technologies are now around to help track and detect methane emissions. Satellites, in particular, have helped scientists in detecting and measuring methane releases from leaks in pipes, venting, and other sources.
These recent technological innovations have discovered sources that may go undetected for years. The recent case of Turkmenistan is a perfect example.
Before this discovery, the Central Asian country wasn’t part of the countries that are known for being super-emitters of methane. Russia, the US, China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Mexico are the most popular super-emitters. No mention of Turkmenistan.
But satellite data analysis by Kayrros, a satellite-based tech company, showed that Turkmenistan has the most CH4 super-emitter events worldwide. The source is the two major leaking oil and gas systems in the country detected by NASA’s satellite monitoring device.
Similarly, in the US, NASA’s satellite program is partnering with a non-profit organization to track methane emissions at individual facilities. Their work produces high-resolution images that can locate sources of CH4 through their plumes.
Here’s an example of a leaking gas line in an oil field in California detected by NASA’s AVIRIS-NG in 2020.
Caption: A methane plume detected by NASA’s AVIRIS-NG. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Right after the discovery, the operator confirmed the leak and repaired it right away. Who knows how much methane would continue leaking from the facility should it remain unknown.
And what about the rest of the leaking facilities from all over the world? They’re too many to handle all at once.
Kayrros detected over 2,400 large CH4 leaks from fossil fuel extraction and landfills since 2019 as shown below.
Where Will the Growing Footprint Take Us?
With more satellite data becoming open to the public, it guides emissions reduction strategies and drives more investments. In most cases, it creates economic incentives for operators to repair leaking systems or plug the inactive ones.
But how about the future CH4 footprint that is projected to even grow bigger?
Data from the Global Methane Initiative (GMI) shows that emissions from human activities by sector will rise by 2030.
As you can see above, emissions from each sector will grow until 2030. The biggest increase is from coal mine releases (17%) from 2020 to 2030. But the footprint from oil and gas systems is forecasted to also grow by 11% for the same period.
Methane, Can We Plug It In?
The good news? Yes, we can.
In fact, the IEA estimates that the oil and gas sector alone can reduce its methane emissions by 75% using technologies already available today. The better news is that ⅔ of it the reduction is possible with no net cost.
The best part? All methane emissions caused by humans can be reduced by as much as 45% within the decade.
So how about literally plugging in those oil and gas wells that were left behind?
The federal government has both its feet on the gas. Its $4.7 billion well-plugging program is on the go in identifying the super-emitters and plugging them in. $30 million of which was used for the research team to develop technologies and best practices for locating the wells.
The team has used drones, field detectors and other remote sensors to look for orphan wells from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma. They have looked on old photos and maps, hiked through creeks, and hacked through brush trying to find the wells. After locating a well, the researchers measure the amount of methane leaking from it and record its GPS coordinates.
Just to be clear – the idea is not to hunt down each and every well in the country, but to develop tools and methods for states to use in finding the wells and which ones to plug first.
Government funding programs can also be stretched to allow entities to monetize their methane capture and destruction efforts. And one of those companies that come to government aid in this quest is Zefiro Methane Corporation.
Zefiro, founded in 2018, is a private methane offsets originator that answers the problem of unfunded well-plugging liabilities, turning them into opportunities while moving the upstream energy sector to Net Zero.
The Vancouver-based company is expanding the supply of carbon credits serving as offsets critical for reaching net zero targets. The company’s goal is to reduce methane emissions which aligns with the industry’s objective for a greener future. Zefiro does that in two main ways:
Well decommissioning: Zefiro will cap abandoned wells for a service fee paid by the well owner (up to $150,000).
Creating offsets: After decommissioning, Zefiro will claim carbon offsets from the programs used by various industries – ex. energy, manufacturing, etc.
To ensure the high quality of their carbon offsets, Zefiro enlists a third-party verifying body to audit and certify each project. This is important to ensure that the project meets all criteria for carbon credit issuance and that it delivers real and actual methane emission reductions.
Investing in the company brings these benefits:
How About the Cows?
Enteric fermentation, as shown earlier, is one of the largest sources of CH4 emissions – 25%. It’s a natural part of the digestive process in ruminant animals like cattle, sheep, goats, and buffalo.
To help the livestock or the animal agriculture industry manage its methane pollution, Mootral comes to its rescue. Mootral is a British-Swiss agritech company that developed the world’s first methodology under Verra’s VCS program for quantifying and monitoring methane reductions from ruminants.
Mootral’s methodology is based on a detailed understanding of the biochemical processes in the rumen and of methanogens – the microorganisms within the rumen that produce methane. The company then produces Mootral Ruminant, a natural feed supplement made up of garlic powder and citrus extracts that restricts methanogenic activity and thus reduces methane emissions.
The company’s mission is to save the climate, one cow at a time through its CowCredit program. Under the program, farmers can convert reductions in methane by feeding Mootral to their raised animals into carbon credits.
Several scientific studies conducted in the countries of the UK, US, Germany, and the Netherlands have shown significant methane reductions in Mootral’s CowCredit projects. Up to 30% reduction in methane emissions was achieved by dairy cattle on a commercial farm in the UK. As much as 25% reduction has been seen in the studies in the U.S.
CH4 Emission Reduction in UK Dairy Farm
So, what does all this mean for investors?
Supporting Mootral or buying carbon credits from its projects bring these benefits:
For other major sources of CH4, mitigating emissions is possible through the technologies provided in the GMI report.
To bring the world to net zero, reducing methane along with carbon emissions is a must. Though mitigating the footprint in the agriculture sector is crucial, addressing emissions caused by oil and gas systems is equally important.
Plugging abandoned oil wells is one of the significant mitigation opportunities available today while other reduction means in other sectors are also feasible. And despite differences in their approach to the problem, they all have one common goal – to prevent methane from escaping into the air.
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