On That Methane Bomb Thing

November 26, 2013

Methane bubbles rising from the ocean floor.

I’m on my way to take a dog to the vet, and, well, I need a stool sample. Not mine, his. Anyway, this is not a methane joke, just means, I’m in a rush.

Important: Everyone should know that the Guy MacPherson-imminent-global-doom scenarios are not real, and not helpful.
You should know that the scientists I find most credible and thoughtful are somewhat pissed at the methane-hair-on-fire crowd for overstating what is a real problem.
Methane is a problem, and as these  recent studies show, one that is being better quantified and studied now.
This has implications for livestock production, the fracking industry, and dreams of harvesting methane clathrates for energy production.


Emissions of the greenhouse gas methane due to human activity were roughly 1.5 times greater in the United States in the middle of the last decade than prevailing estimates, according to a new analysis by 15 climate scientists published Monday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The analysis also said that methane discharges in Texas and Oklahoma, where oil and gas production was concentrated at the time, were 2.7 times greater than conventional estimates. Emissions from oil and gas activity alone could be five times greater than the prevailing estimate, the report said.

The study relies on nearly 12,700 measurements of atmospheric methane in 2007 and 2008. Its conclusions are sharply at odds with the two most comprehensive estimates of methane emissions, by the Environmental Protection Agency and an alliance of the Netherlands and the European Commission.

The E.P.A. has stated that all emissions of methane, from both man-made and natural sources, have been slowly but steadily declining since the mid-1990s. In April, the agency reduced its estimate of methane discharges from 1990 through 2010 by 8 to 12 percent, largely citing sharp decreases in discharges from gas production and transmission, landfills and coal mines.

The new analysis calls that reduction into question, saying that two sources of methane emissions in particular — from oil and gas production and from cattle and other livestock — appear to have been markedly larger than the E.P.A. estimated during 2007 and 2008.

One of the study’s principal authors, Scot M. Miller of Harvard University’s department of earth and planetary sciences, said its higher estimates underscore methane’s significant contribution to rising temperatures.

“These are pretty substantial numbers we’re dealing with, and an important part of greenhouse gas emissions,” he said on Monday. “Our study shows that there could be large greenhouse gas emissions in places in the country where we may not necessarily have accounted for them.”


The Arctic methane time bomb is bigger than scientists once thought and primed to blow, according to a study published today (Nov. 24) in the journal Nature Geoscience.

About 17 teragrams of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, escapes each year from a broad, shallow underwater platform called the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, said Natalia Shakova, lead study author and a biogeochemist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. A teragram is equal to about 1.1 million tons; the world emits about 500 million tons of methane every year from manmade and naturalsources. The new measurement more than doubles the team’s earlier estimate of Siberian methane release, published in 2010 in the journal Science.

“We believe that release of methane from the Arctic, in particular, from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, could impact the entire globe, not just the Arctic alone,” Shakova told LiveScience. “The picture that we are trying to understand is what is the actual contribution of the [shelf] to the global methane budget and how it will change over time.”

Joe Romm at ClimateProgress:

This broad-based look at methane emissions confirms the findings of 3 recent leakage studies covering very different regions of the country:

    • NOAA researchers found in 2012 that natural-gas producers in the Denver area “are losing about 4% of their gas to the atmosphere — not including additional losses in the pipeline and distribution system.”
    • 2013 study by NOAA found leaks from oil and gas exploration and extraction in the L.A. basin representing “about 17% of the natural gas produced in the region, similar to the leak rate estimated by the California Air Resources Board using other methods.” Almost all the gas produced in the basin is “associated” with oil production (rather than, say, fracked). Associated gas is still about a fifth of total U.S. gas production.
    • Another 2013 study from 19 researchers led by NOAA concluded “measurements show that on one February day in the Uinta Basin, the natural gas field leaked 6 to 12 percent of the methane produced, on average, on February days.” The Uinta Basin is of special interest because it “produces about 1 percent of total U.S. natural gas” and fracking has increased there over the past decade.
        The comprehensive nature of this new study strongly suggests these earlier findings were not anomalies, as some have suggested.

Indeed, all of these findings taken together vindicate the concerns of high leakage rates raised by Cornell professors Howarth, Santoro and Ingraffea, which I reported on back in 2011. I asked Ingraffea to comment on the new study. He wrote:

The results presented by Miller and his team are another serious challenge to an “all of the above” energy policy that relies on negotiated estimates of methane emissions, rather than actual and representative emission measurements, while at the same time claiming serious concern about climate change. A growing series of regional, top-down measurements by this team and others, now on a national scale, is proving to be a more rational approach to accounting for the highly skewed distribution of methane emission sources.

He added, “That methane bridge is starting to crack.”

We have seen a number of cracks this year in the methane bridge — bringing it to the point of collapse. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported recently that methane is a far more potent a greenhouse gas than we had previously realized, some 34 times stronger a heat-trapping gas than CO2 over a 100-year time scale — and 86 times more potent over a 20-year time frame.

With methane having both a higher leakage rate and higher global warming potential than previously thought, the notion of methane as a bridge fuel is falling apart.

Yes, it’s true a recent study finds the best-fracked wells have low methane leak rates — but that study ignored the super-emitters that are responsible for the bulk of the fugitive emissions.

And remember, for natural gas to be a bridge fuel to a carbon-free future (rather than a detour around it), gas must replace coal only, rather than replacing some combination of coal, renewables, nuclear power, and energy efficiency — which is obviously what will happen in the real world absent a price on carbon pollution. The most comprehensive modeling to date, by fourteen teams from different organizations, found that abundant and cheap natural gas has little net impact on U.S. CO2 growth (especially post-2020) compared to the case of low shale gas penetration precisely because it displaces carbon-free energy. Globally, the International Energy Agency finds a dash to gas would destroy a livable climate.

Finally, natural gas makes little sense as a short-term sustainability play, since we know that each fracked well consumes staggering amounts of water, much of which is rendered permanently unfit for human use and reinjected into the ground where it can taint even more ground water in the coming decades. That’s particularly worrisome considering that fossil fuels destroy the climate and accelerate drought and water shortages.

With this most recent study, our understanding of the limitations of natural gas is now fairly complete. Natural gas is not a bridge to a carbon-free or climate-safe future. In fact, absent both a serious price for carbon and very strong, enforceable national regulations on leakage, natural gas is a gangplank.

The current studies do not address the methane-permafrost connection, which is the topic of the video below:

30 Responses to “On That Methane Bomb Thing”

  1. Trenchant commentary from Joe Romm.  There appears to be very little effort going on to eliminate leaking gas, or at least flare it.  And what’s the deal with fracking water, anyway?  There should be mandates to e.g. carbon-filter the mass to capture hydrocarbons, then use solar distillation to separate the salts and flare any combustible volatiles.  If they’re going to make a mess, the least they should do is clean it up.

    Contrast gas fracking with solution-mining for uranium.  In some rocks this relies on bacteria, and the program is to pump in oxygen and CO2 to mobilize and remove the uranium, then feed the bacteria, then get them drunk.  A bit of remnant ethanol or acetate in groundwater is harmless.

    The shales themselves are reservoirs for uranium, so maybe we’ll be going back to them after the gas is gone and pumping down liquids to pull out stuff that was formerly viewed as NORM (Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials), a nuisance.

  2. […] I'm on my way to take a dog to the vet, and, well, I need a stool sample. Not mine, his. Anyway, this is not a methane joke, just means, I'm in a rush. Important: Everyone should know that the Guy …  […]

  3. indy222 Says:

    This is a strange post, Peter – you begin with the implication that reputable climate scientists find the methane danger far overstated, then proceed with literature which indicates the methane danger is worse than we had been assuming.
    Can you summarize what the take-away should be??

    • greenman3610 Says:

      There are people out there on the inter tubes talking about imminent global conflagration related to sudden eruption of methane from undersea deposits. This is considered highly unlikely by mainstream scientists.
      Methane continues to be one of the most concerning threats as a feedback to human business as usual. The most immediate and best documented feedbacks are in the arctic permafrost, which threatens to stop being a sink for carbon, and become a source, in coming decades.

  4. On this subject, The Breakthrough reports that the fraction of carbon-free energy generation has stagnated since 1999.

    To stabilize the climate, we need this figure to be around 90% in the short term.  It climbed from 6% in 1973 to 12% in 1979, a rate of 1% per year.  That’s not fast enough… yet it has flattened out, not steepened.  WHAT HAPPENED?!

    I’ll tell you what happened:  the “environmental” movement demonized nuclear energy, and blocked the single most effective replacement for fossil carbon-based energy that humanity has ever known.  The consequence has been that more coal, oil and gas have been burned than a sane human society would allow.  Given:  human society is not, as a collective, sane.  Write it up as a game of warring human camps, and solve for survivability… if you can!

    • redskylite Says:

      Not sure what you mean by “environmental” movement, much of the world does not have such a movement. Most Arab countries and China do not have democracy never mind an “environmental” movement. U.A.E has bought a fleet of nuclear power facilities as you pointed out earlier, but the U.A.E is oil rich and can afford the fleet to produce power why selling more oil exports, many other Arab nations are not so fortunate and also are perceived as politically unstable, so difficult to find a friendly nuclear sponsor anyway. Look at the trouble Iran are having by daring to tackle the holy grail. Climate change/global warming is a global problem. Greenpeace and the like are not so powerful to stop nations going nuclear even if they want to. I think it was pointed out earlier that the environmental movement is not consulted much about decisions in countries that do have democracies and Greenpeace activists. In New Zealand offshore oil exploration is going ahead despite strong protest from the so called “environmental” movement. People want money and rewards and do not listen to “environmentalists”.

      • redskylite Says:

        Sorry dyslexic moment – should read “while selling more oil exports”

      • redskylite Says:

        link to article regarding offshore oil exploration taking place in N.Z right now – http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/industries/9418600/Hopes-high-for-big-new-deep-sea-oil-discoveries

      • Not sure what you mean by “environmental” movement, much of the world does not have such a movement. Most Arab countries and China do not have democracy never mind an “environmental” movement.

        The USA has one, composed of several major NGOs plus academics in universities and such.  Most parts of Europe have the same.  These are the places where nuclear energy has been brought to a screeching halt, such that even France is now pledging to cut its grid from 78% nuclear down to 50%.  And for what?  So that France’s 5.8 tCO2/capita/yr can be increased to Denmark’s 8.3 tons?

        U.A.E has bought a fleet of nuclear power facilities as you pointed out earlier, but the U.A.E is oil rich and can afford the fleet to produce power why selling more oil exports

        And that’s exactly it.  The UAE will use cheap, clean nuclear energy so that it has more oil and gas to sell to nuclear-phobes.  If it wasn’t for the nuclear-phobes, the UAE would have little or nothing to sell.  Its fabulously rich aristocracy would be back to a lifestyle reliant on the scraps of Western civilization, or maybe even camels.  If we weren’t paranoid, even smallish islands would get their electric power from things like the 25 MW(e) Hyperion instead of diesel generators burning petroleum.

        Greenpeace and the like are not so powerful to stop nations going nuclear even if they want to.

        Greenpeace and FoE have been the “green” front for the fossil-fuel lobby, helping to tie nuclear energy in such a web of regulations and “intervenor” harassment that it’s almost impossible to build in the USA.  The fossil lobby is at it today, promoting wind farms as the putative replacement for existing nuclear plants while selling gas turbines which burn their products (natural gas and even oil) to produce the bulk of that power.  NONE of this would be possible if the “Greens” were not willing to run cover for fossil interests for the sake of eliminating nuclear power.  If environmentalists denounced such tactics and those who practice them, the fossil lobby would be naked and have to retreat.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          One has to admire the strength of E-Pot’s obsession, if not the depths of paranoia that seem to bubble up from it occasionally (like CH4 from the sea floor?). It is quite a stretch to accuse Greenpeace of being a “green front” and “cover” for the fossil fuel lobby.

          I have commented before that too many “greens” suffer from a degree of cognitive dissonance and motivated reasoning regarding nuclear power (as well as the issues of vaccines, GMO, and fracking). Nuclear power seems to be one that many “green” folks are rethinking a bit. Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace, has said we need to take a second look at nuclear power, along with Hansen, Lovelock, and Brand (the last two going back to the beginnings of the environmental movement).

          Lighten up, E-Pot, and maybe you’ll be paid more attention.

          • Meanwhile, in the real world, Friends of the Earth (FoE) was started with seed money from an oil executive.

            FoE was an offshoot of the Sierra Club, because the Sierra Club refused to adopt their anti-nuclear platform.  Greenpeace was an an anti-nuclear organization from very early on (and Patrick Moore parted company with them in part because of that), when then and now conflates nuclear electricity with nuclear weapons despite all weapons proliferators from India onward having no electric industry involvement in weapons, and even no nuclear electric capacity at all (N. Korea, Pakistan).  It’s truly ironic that GP claims “that binding massive amounts of investments on nuclear energy would take funding away from more effective solutions.[76]” (Wikipedia) given the radically superior GHG performance of nuclear France over “renewable” Denmark.

    • ontspan Says:

      Why blame environmentalists? I thought that the nuclear industry was pretty good at self-discrediting without any outside help.

  5. omnologos Says:

    Peter makes exactly the point I’ve been unsuccessfully repeating for months….for climate change we should manage future risks without wasting time in dubious certainties of present or imminent catastrophes.

    The only current surefire issue as far as I’m concerned is black carbon. Everything else needs a lot of thinking and hard choices against much uncertainty.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      Don’t put words in my mouth.
      What we already know, and have known for half a century, is that adding more heat trapping gases to the atmosphere will cause substantial changes in the planet’s climate, and the paleo record tells us that changes on this scale and this time frame will most likely be extremely damaging to species on the planet, not to mention civilization that depends on a functioning biosphere.
      We do not need to over state the case for climate change action. The words “planetary emergency” are not too strong. But this blog is also not a forum for the “it’s too late we’re doomed” catastrophist crowd – as, to the best of my knowledge, that is not supported by the science.

    • Omnologos, I think we can care about both CO2 and black carbon soot at the same time. I don’t disagree that black carbon is an issue, nor that deforestation is (which you didn’t discuss). Doesn’t eliminate the need to get off the carbon energy economy though.

  6. Guy LaCrosse Says:

    Reblogged this on Ideas for a new age and commented:
    I’ve had some chats with Guy MacPherson’s and his group of people(on Facebook) who think the end is near. They evidence that put forward looks like the work of environmental enthusiast more than professional scientists. Some of it is still interesting, but nothing so compelling that I would suddenly switch from having hope of preventing catastrophic climate change to the fatalistic idea that it’s all in vain.

    There just isn’t enough evidence that near term human extinction is about to happen. None of the people that I trust in the scientific community, that are still doing work and getting their worked published, are saying this. My own opinion that that we should look at some form of geoengineering to reduce the risk of a large Methane release but don’t over-state it.

    See my geoenigeering idea here. The idea is still being worked on. I need to do more calculations and come up with additional ideas.

    • andrewfez Says:

      I have yet to figure out Guy McPherson’s position on ‘walking away’ from the modern world, if that at all is what he’s trying to do; mostly because I’m just not curious enough to do so (watched a few of his lectures last year, but never read his ‘nature bats last’ blog, save perhaps half of an entry).

      Maybe it’s my ignorance of his position that prompts me to the question, but when one of his agrarian society members has a tooth abscess or a urinary tract infection, do they go to the doctor (i.e. a practitioner of the modern science of medicine)? Or are they more ‘preppers’ that are waiting for modernity to walk away from them, whilst living low consumption lifestyles?

      • Guy LaCrosse Says:

        My impression is that this a group of like minded people who have a fatalistic view of the future. Some of them think we’ll die from Radiation sickness or cancer from Fukushima Daiichi. Others think it will be from a runaway green house effect making the Earth too hot for humans to live.

        Guy MacPherson believes the solution would be to walk away from industrialization and civilization as we know it. He wrote a book called “Going Dark” which implies that we need to shut down the electric grid. He says that if we do otherwise then we’re all doomed. He calls what people like Bill McKibben do as promoting “Hopium” as in an addiction to false hope.

        I don’t subscribe to this view. My view is that collapse or even extinction is a possibility but only if we do nothing about the crisis. Even the most narcissistic sadist cares about saving their own ass so it seems unlikely that we would do nothing about a looming catastrophe that could be avoided. That is if it is there is enough information for people to know that it will happen unless they act and act quickly.

        Does that answer your question?

        • andrewfez Says:

          I think so.

          It’s a pretty scary proposition, turning off the grid. Vaccines and antibiotics stop getting made. The guy with the tooth abscess i mentioned above dies of septicemia. Infant mortality rates shoot back up to what they were before vaccines/antibiotics. Instruments in hospital labs no longer work, so nobody can figure out what a patient is suffering from. CT/MR and other image scans don’t work so no more cancer detection/treatment, stroke assessments, etc. The pockets of Plague that are inhabiting small crevices of the globe today have an opportunity to spring back up (there are signs in Yosemite Natl. Park that say not to interact with the small mammals, as some have been found to be Plague carriers). Pretty much a ‘naked’ doctor – one having no modern tools – is as about as useful as a doctor from the late 1800’s.

          Effectively, the human lifespan goes way south. Romans had an average lifespan of 27 or 28 years. Medieval folks were a tad better at around 30 years. I think the Victorians were a bit better off at upper 30’s to upper 40’s.

          Walking away from oil and gas, I would imagine, could be a death sentence for every tree on this earth as 7 billion people try to stay warm, cook, make shelter, farm old school style, and build ships to trade using wood (I haven’t run the numbers; just my instinct). Look at the UK during the pre-Roman era where there were points when there was as much farmland being used as there is today (according to one of those BBC documentaries). If you look at the UK on Google Maps, you notice they don’t have many trees there: it’s all farmland. I believe one of the great hopes in the American colonies was the prospect of more wood, that ship building and the like could continue.

          I’m thinking turning electricity off does more damage to the human condition than 2 or 3 degrees of warming, but that’s just me making up numbers. Plus, as I mentioned with the trees, turning off everything with this many people on the plant could potentially destroy forest based ecology as we know it. McPherson’s idea seems only to work if there were a lot less people on the plant (so that the natural, pre-oil/coal carrying capacity would stay intact). Of course my speculation is quite clumsy, not quantifying anything or creating a consumption rate as population deflates, but still something to think about.

          • Guy LaCrosse Says:

            Those and many other reasons make it a highly unlikely choice for civilization to make. For instance, what if the USA ‘Goes Dark” while the rest of the world doesn’t? That would dramatically shift the balance of power wouldn’t it?

            We can either walk back on technology or move forward. If walk away from technology a lot of people would die and we would be more vulnerable to threats, both from here on Earth and from space.

            I think we should go forward on the technology front but work hard to maintain good environmental policies and practices at the same time.

          • People would rather burn coal (and damn the consequences 50 or even 10 years down the line) than give up technological society.

            Since my goal is to get them to stop burning coal (and oil, and natural gas) rather than attaining some state of Green purity, I push nuclear.  I don’t see anything else that works as well, or as quickly (see France compared to Denmark)… and we certainly have no time to waste.

  7. Guy LaCrosse Says:

    Sorry for the horrible grammar. I was in a hurry this morning.

  8. Quite a day. The environmental movement causing global warming? Carbon black concerns. Gloom and doom? Whatever happened to methane? Oh yes. Apparently, not all the methane processed by oil and gas companies stayed in the pipe. Wonder how much is leaking in a city? I thought it was obvious a lot of it was leaking. A view and smell of a refinery, not to mention a twist of the tap near a frack site would give that impression. How much oil is spilled? Why would a gas be any better? Wouldn’t disturbing land that contains gas release more of it? Coal mining releases gas, doesn’t it? It sounds like methane emissions need more attention and a greater sense of urgency.

  9. dumboldguy Says:

    Would anyone like to talk about the PETM and The Methane Gun hypothesis?


    We are all in a state of denial if we don’t want to admit that tipping points and positive feedback mechanisms are out there, and we don’t fully understand them. Considering how little progress we are making on limiting CO2 emissions and that global warming appears to be here to stay for quite a while no matter what we do, it is no more than whistling past the graveyard to pooh-pooh the significance of methane release from any source.

  10. redskylite Says:

    A very good precise from “RealClimate” on Methane and Climate Change Risks http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2013/11/arctic-and-american-methane-in-context/

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