Could the Government Be Vastly Underestimating U.S. Methane Gas Emissions?

Knowing how much of the gas exists in the atmosphere is crucial, but pinning down a national emissions estimate is proving to be tricky.

An oil drilling rig, a producer of methane gas emissions, near Watford City, N.D.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Nov. 25, 2013, 10:20 a.m.

While it ranks far be­hind car­bon di­ox­ide in total emis­sions, meth­ane is the second most com­mon green­house gas emit­ted in the U.S. from hu­man activ­it­ies, ac­count­ing for 9 per­cent. Its life­time in the at­mo­sphere is much short­er than that of car­bon di­ox­ide — about 10 years — but meth­ane is bet­ter at trap­ping and hold­ing onto ra­di­ation than the oth­er gas. Pound for pound, meth­ane’s ef­fect on cli­mate change is 20 times that of car­bon di­ox­ide over 100 years, ac­cord­ing to the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency.

Know­ing how much of the stuff ex­ists in the at­mo­sphere, then, is cru­cial for law­makers and sci­ent­ists alike, who col­lab­or­ate on na­tion­al and state green­house-gas re­duc­tion plans. Pin­ning down a na­tion­al es­tim­ate, however, is prov­ing to be tricky.

Earli­er this month, a pair of sen­at­ors asked EPA to re­con­sider its es­tim­ates of meth­ane emis­sions from nat­ur­al-gas op­er­a­tions, and even re­think how it meas­ures at­mo­spher­ic meth­ane, at a Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee hear­ing. Dav­id Vit­ter, R-La., and Jim In­hofe, R-Okla., cited a Septem­ber re­port fun­ded by the En­vir­on­ment­al De­fense Fund and sev­er­al gas op­er­at­ors that said the gas in­dustry emits 10 per­cent less meth­ane than what EPA’s in­vent­ory in­dic­ates.

And now, re­search pub­lished Monday in Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tion­al Academy of Sci­ences sug­gests that the gov­ern­ment data­base may un­der­es­tim­ate the true val­ues of U.S. meth­ane gas emis­sions by 50 per­cent.

Re­search­ers traced at­mo­spher­ic meth­ane meas­ure­ments across North Amer­ica in 2007 and 2008 back to known emis­sions-pro­du­cing sites, such as land­fills, live­stock ranches, and oil and gas fa­cil­it­ies.

Emis­sions from oil and gas drilling in Texas, Ok­lahoma, and Kan­sas, re­search­ers found, were nearly triple that of most in­vent­or­ies, and al­most five times high­er than the the Emis­sions Data­base for Glob­al At­mo­spher­ic Re­search, the most com­monly used glob­al emis­sions in­vent­ory.

EPA’s latest re­port from its Green­house Gas Re­port­ing Pro­gram showed that meth­ane-gas emis­sions have slightly de­creased in re­cent years in some in­dus­tries such as fossil fuels and pet­ro­leum and nat­ur­al gas.

The agency is not ob­li­vi­ous to the dis­crep­an­cies that ex­ist between its own meas­ure­ments and those of civil sci­ent­ists. “EPA has not yet had the op­por­tun­ity to fully re­view the PNAS study on meth­ane emis­sions,” the agency said in a state­ment to Na­tion­al Journ­al. “However we are en­cour­aged that more meth­ane emis­sions meas­ure­ment data are now avail­able to the pub­lic. Re­search stud­ies like these will add to our know­ledge base of [green­house gas] emis­sions and will help us re­fine our es­tim­ates go­ing for­ward.”

If EPA’s own meas­ure­ment data is not im­mune to change, it’s un­likely that state-level and oth­er na­tions’ green­house-gas emis­sions in­vent­or­ies are either, es­pe­cially as the tech­no­logy that meas­ures the po­tent gas and where it ori­gin­ates con­tin­ues to de­vel­op.

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