The Norman Transcript

August 24, 2013

Methane may be more menacing than CO2

By Mary Francis
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — For 850,000 years, atmospheric CO2 levels were never more than 300 parts per million (ppm). In less than 100 years, CO2 has rapidly risen to more than 400 ppm.

If that weren’t bad enough, recent studies of another greenhouse gas, methane, indicate that we may have an even worse problem. Steven Hamburg, a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, explained:

“Why methane leakage matters. Natural gas, which is mostly methane, burns with fewer carbon dioxide emissions than other fossil fuels. However, when uncombusted methane leaks into the atmosphere ... it acts as a powerful greenhouse gas with enormous implications for global climate change due to its short-term potency: Over a 20-year time frame, each pound of methane is 72 times more powerful at increasing the retention of heat in the atmosphere than a pound of carbon dioxide.”

A recent aerial sampling of methane over a gas field in the Uintah Basin startled scientists from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

On Feb. 3, 2012, researchers flew over the huge Uintah Basin’s oil and gas fields and found a methane emission rate of 6.2 to 11.7 percent when compared to an average day’s production for February.

Previously, a Cornell University study of methane, eeb.cornell.edu/howarth/Howarth%20et%20al%20%202011.pdf?, had found “3.6 to 7.9 percent of the methane from shale-gas production escapes to the atmosphere in venting and leaks over the lifetime of a well” and that “methane escapes from flow-back return fluids — and during drill out following the fracturing.”

In the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ramon Alvarez, Steve Hamburg and others concluded that for new natural gas power plants to reduce climate impacts (as compared to new coal plants), leakage would have to stay under 3.2 percent. See: “Greater focus needed on methane leakage from natural gas infrastructure.”

Follow-up research to the CIRES report is being compiled by a consortium of a dozen groups which includes Hamburg. He cautions about relying on limited results, “... ongoing work by the NOAA/UC team, as well as by Environmental Defense Fund and other academic and industry partners, will provide a far more systematic view that will greatly increase our understanding of the fugitive methane issue.”

Some of that much-anticipated research was reported at the American Geophysical Union meeting in December. In an article in the Jan. 2 Nature, “Methane leaks erode green credentials of natural gas,” Jeff Tollefson said, “Preliminary results from a field study in the Uinta Basin of Utah suggesting even higher rates of methane leakage — an eye-popping 9 percent of the total production.”

Other studies from the University of Texas will include nine of the nation’s leading natural gas producers, plus the EDF research. But what difference will new data make to Sens. Inhofe and Coburn or Congressman Cole and others? Will Congress finally act to protect their children and ours from the worst of global warming?

The Citizens Climate Lobby has called for a revenue-neutral Carbon Tax and Dividend, which would not grow government but instead returns the money to American citizens. This monthly or annual payment would protect households from rising costs associated with the carbon tax.

You can see the proposal at citizensclimatelobby.org/carbon-tax or search for Citizens Climate Lobby carbon tax. Because of the excess greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, it is too late to fix the global warming problem. But perhaps, with swift Congressional action, the worst effects could be mitigated.

Mary Francis is a member of the Norman chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby.