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Cover Me - Debate Over Methane Emissions Starts With Determining Size of the Problem

It’s well understood that methane is a significant greenhouse gas and that reducing methane emissions from oil and gas production is critical to hitting long-term emissions targets, but that’s about where most of the common ground ends. There are serious disagreements about the actual magnitude of methane emissions, the proper role of government regulation, and whether requirements to control those emissions would place an undue burden on the energy industry and lead to decreased supply. In today’s RBN blog, we look at how emissions estimates are made, why they can vary significantly, and how the disagreements about how to curb those emissions might be resolved.

As we’ve discussed in previous RBN blogs — including Paradise, Part 3 and Standards — methane is the primary constituent in pipeline natural gas but also a super-potent, front-end-loaded GHG, with a Global Warming Potential (GWP) often estimated to be more than 80 times that of carbon dioxide (CO2) during the initial 20-year period after it’s emitted into the atmosphere and more than 25 times that of CO2 over a 100-year period. That means making even modest reductions in methane emissions can really help blunt the long-term effects of man-made climate change.

In 2020, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory Data Explorer, U.S. methane emissions from energy production and use totaled the equivalent of 269 million metric tons (MT) of CO2 (based on the 100-year timeframe noted above). As shown in Figure 1, that made the energy industry the biggest source (39%; blue slice) of methane emissions in the U.S. in 2020, topping agriculture (36%; orange slice), waste (19%; gray slice), changes in land use (5.5%; yellow slice), and industrial processes (0.05%).

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