The new August 2021 landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) contained a full chapter on “short-lived pollutants like methane.” We know methane is over 80 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2, so it’s a very potent and dangerous greenhouse gas.
The IPCC report states that methane accounts for about 0.5 degrees C of the warming we are now experiencing. But methane does not last as long in the air as CO2. Because it declines rapidly, many researchers believe that rapid cuts now to methane emissions might buy us the time we need to control the longer-term problems created by fossil fuels.
BBC environmental correspondent Matt McGrath explains that the IPCC report suggests that cutting methane emissions by 40% to 45% over the next decade would cut 0.3 degrees C of the increase in global temperature by 2040. As McGrath points out, “in a world where every fraction of a degree counts, that’s a potentially huge difference to hopes of keeping the 1.5 degrees C threshold alive.” Remember, we need to keep warming near the 1.5 degree C threshold if we wish to leave our children and all other species a viable future.
But where does all this methane come from and how can it be mitigated? Scientists believe that about 40% of it is occurring naturally in bogs and wetlands. The rest comes from human activities.
“It’s a combination of sources, from agriculture, including cattle and rice production, (and) another large source is methane in rubbish dumps,” said Professor Peter Throne, an IPCC author from Ireland. “One of the biggest is from the production, transport and use of natural gas, which is really misnamed and should be called fossil gas.”
Many experts say it is relatively easy to cut some methane sources quickly. Putting soil on top of large urban landfills in developing countries will stop emissions. McGrath states that, in the U.S., efforts to collect gas from landfill sites saw methane emissions cut 40% between 1990 and 2016. In the agricultural sector, changes in manure processing and animal feed could make a big difference, as well as consumer-driven market choices, such as eating less meat and dairy. Rice farmers can add compost to reduce methane.
But the big culprit remains oil and gas.
It is well established that the explosion in methane levels is linked to the recent boom in fracking. The good news is that we will soon have the technology to track and pinpoint industrial leaks, including satellite and drone technologies, and sophisticated air and ground monitoring. Much of this data will be available to the public.
The Environmental Defense Fund, which monitors methane over Texas oil and gas fields, has found that oil fields in the U.S. are leaking 60% more methane than they are reporting. As science reporter Anna Kuchment stated in the current Scientific American, “If methane emissions from oil fields are the low-hanging fruit, the Permian is a fertile orchard.” Citing an April 2020 study led by researchers at Harvard, she added, “the Basin emits enough methane to power 7 million homes.”
Unless we get it under control, methane flares and leaks will offset the gains we are making in cleaning up the coal-fired sector.
The Trump administration scrapped rules that would have required oil companies to monitor and fix leaks. Recently, President Biden repealed the Trump-era EPA rule, but it is evident that we can no longer rely on the industry to self-monitor and repair leaks, even though repair is often as easy as closing a valve or tightening a vent.
And, here, New Mexico is taking the lead, as we should. New Mexico’s methane cloud is now visible by satellite. Our oil and gas industry leaks more than a million tons of methane a year – the equivalent of 22 coal-fired power plants. We are fortunate to have Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a leader committed to reducing these emissions, in charge of this transition.
The new final methane waste rule passed in March with input from industry partners requires 98% of the methane from oil and gas operations to be captured by 2026. This rule eliminates routine venting and flaring, and it’s just the beginning.
But we can’t just rely on the government and industry; we can all cut our food waste, change our diets and compost. And soon, as Kuchment suggests, we can join other citizens in tracking emitters and verifying industrial self-reporting.
Judith Polich, a longtime New Mexico resident, is a retired attorney with a background in environmental studies and is a student of climate change. She can be reached at email@example.com.