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Methane, global warming and the natural gas industry [ClearOnMoney]
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Methane, global warming and the natural gas industry

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Commentary

Methane, global warming and the natural gas industry

12 Apr 2011 by Jim Fickett.

In order to follow the discussion on global warming, an understanding of methane is essential – it is less important than carbon dioxide, but not by a great deal. It is possible that a feedback loop, in which higher temperatures melt arctic permafrost and release more methane, will be a crucial part of the global warming story, though data is too thin yet to know one way or the other. The oil and gas industry leaks enough methane to make a significant difference in global warming and, barring significantly higher production costs, the shale gas industry is probably going to be a major culprit.

Carbon dioxide gets most of the attention in discussions of global warming. But methane, a product of decomposing organic matter and the main component of natural gas, also plays a major role. Here is a thumbnail sketch of the main facts:

Methane is a major player

  • 1 pound of methane in the atmosphere has the same heat-trapping effect as 21 pounds of carbon dioxide
  • The atmospheric concentration of methane has risen dramatically (subscription required) since the industrial revolution, to about 3 times its pre-industrial levels, in parallel with that of carbon dioxide
  • Methane is probably responsible for about one fifth of anthropogenic warming
  • One estimate suggests that methane leaks from the oil and gas industry worldwide contribute as much to global warming as half the coal-fired power plants in the US

Methane is more controllable than carbon dioxide

  • Methane is rather transitory – if all additions of methane to the atmosphere were to stop, the concentration would drop to an insignificant level in about a decade; since for carbon dioxide the figure is centuries, managing methane could bring positive results sooner
  • The total amount of methane in the atmosphere is probably increasing at about 22 million tons per year, as the amount added (598 Mt/yr) exceeds the amount removed (576 Mt/yr); most of the additions are anthropogenic and related to agriculture; one large source is the energy industry – for example coal mining and natural gas pipeline leaks probably contribute on the order of 100 Mt/yr

Methane from arctic permafrost could be decisive in global warming

  • There is little data, and differing opinions, on how important methane released by higher temperatures in the arctic might be; one study shows that although only 2% of current methane releases come from the arctic, the total released increased by about 1/3 from 2003 to 2007; another study (subscription required) says there is not enough data to be sure there is any increase
  • There is enough methane in the arctic to change the course of global warming – possibly including more carbon than in the world's coal reserves
  • Current models of global warming do not attempt to include the effects of methane releases from the arctic, though many scientists agree that this could be an important part of the overall picture

And what sparked today's post –

Shale gas is much worse than conventional gas

Take home messages

  1. Methane news is about as important as carbon dioxide news
  2. The feedback loop between global warming and the release of methane from melting permafrost could turn out to be the key story in global warming; it has been relatively little studied so far, and new research deserves close attention
  3. As warming gets worse and countries get, perhaps, more serious about doing something, there will probably be additional costs in the coal, oil, and natural gas industries as regulators attempt to slow the rate of leaking methane