Methane, friend and foe for climate change

A STUDY in the journal Science finds that the United States is putting a lot more methane, a potent contributor to global warming and the primary compound in natural gas, into the air than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated. But the report also shows that the problem is fixable—and not a reason to shut down the controversial extraction method known as fracking. Natural gas, as a transitional fuel, remains an important response to climate change.

Methane is a powerful driver of climate change. Unburned methane is about 20 times more effective at heating the planet than carbon dioxide on a century-long time frame. Burning it, on the other hand, is much better for the environment; combusting methane — in a power plant, for example — produces CO2, but about half the amount of burning coal, the fuel for which it often substitutes. So burning methane could help reduce U.S. greenhouse emissions in the short-term, but letting lots of it waft into the air would have a negative impact on the climate.

The study’s results aren’t disastrous, for two reasons. First, they indicate that extremely high estimates of methane leakage that have popped up in analyses of particular regions aren’t representative of the leakiness of the whole natural-gas system. Second, a lot of the leakage can be reduced relatively easily.

Through its regulation of another class of compounds, the EPA has already established rules requiring drillers to perform “green completions,” which capture methane escaping from wells. But that rule only applies to new wells, and not even to all of those. Besides, significant leakage occurs not only during drilling but also during fuel processing, storage and transportation. A recent study found 5,800 separate instances of natural gas leaks around the District, which has aging cast-iron pipes. Old, abandoned mines and wells that weren’t sealed properly also contribute.

Reasonable new regulation wouldn’t be very expensive, in part because it would reduce the amount of product that goes to waste. The Science analysis, meanwhile, indicates that a huge chunk of the country’s methane pollution comes from a small group of “super-emitters,” which the EPA could aim to fix first.

Some states already have imposed more comprehensive rules on the oil and gas industry. John Hickenlooper (D), Colorado’s governor, is pushing through regulations that would apply to old and new facilities for both oil and gas, which would require various anti-leak technologies and regular leak inspection on tanks, pipelines and other equipment. Mr. Hickenlooper hashed out the requirements with drillers and the Environmental Defense Fund, an activist group whose practical approach has done much more to clean up fracking than the unsparing opposition of its more radical cousins.

Even with current levels of leakage, the researchers note, replacing coal-fired power with natural- gas electricity generation is a net positive for the climate, though the world eventually has to transition off natural gas, too. But that finding shouldn’t deter Americans from expecting to waste less fuel, reducing local ozone pollution and gaining more emissions benefits in the process. More states should follow Colorado’s model — not to shut down the industry, but to better it.


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Editor's Note: The aforementioned study was funded by a grant from the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.

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