Howarth Methane Obsession Will Leave New Yorkers Freezing in the Dark

NIMBYismRoger Caiazza
Independent Researcher and Publisher,
Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York

[Editor Comment: Bob Howarth, who parades around as an academic, is really an activist with a methane obsession that is going to hurt New Yorkers badly.]

On July 18, 2019, Governor Cuomo signed into law the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) It is among the most ambitious climate laws in the world and requires New York to reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030 and no less than 85 percent by 2050 from 1990 levels.  I maintain that not only is the general public unaware of the ramifications of this legislation but I doubt that very few of the legislators who voted and sponsored it understood the overt anti-natural gas biases included in the language of the act.  This post addresses the methane obsession reflected in changes to the emissions inventory requirements and what that means to New Yorkers.

I am following the implementation of the CLCPA closely because its implementation affects my future as a New Yorker.  Given the cost impacts for other jurisdictions that have implemented renewable energy resources to meet targets at much less stringent levels, I am convinced that the costs in New York will be enormous and my analyses have supported that concern.  In addition, I think that the CLCPA’s mandate to electrify home heating will be deadly when an ice storm knocks out power for days.  The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.


The CLCPA sets its limits based on emissions in 1990.  This inventory of all sources of greenhouse gas emissions therefore becomes an important component of the law.  I have done a couple of more technical posts on the emissions inventory.  I addressed the emissions report timing contradictions that I think preclude meaningful public input to the final numbers developed and looked at the effect of four key considerations imposed by the CLCPA.  In my other post I documented changes with the new CLCPA inventory relative to past inventories. According to the latest edition of the NYSERDA GHG emission inventory (July 2019) Table S-1 New York State GHG Emissions 1990–2016 the New York State 1990 GHG emissions were 205.61 MMtCO2e The proposed Part 496 regulation 1990 emissions inventory total is 401.38 MMtCO2e for an increase of 195.77 MMtCO2e.

There are two primary reasons for the near doubling of the emissions inventory. The CLCPA inventory adds a requirement to include not only direct emissions but also emissions associated with getting the fuels to New York.  The second change modified the potential effect of methane on global warming by changing the time horizons.

Methane Obsession

It is becoming increasingly clear that the politicians and those who helped draft the CLCPA had a bias against methane emissions from natural gas use and they were aided and abetted in their quest to outlaw its use in New York by Cornell professor Bob Howarth.  According to the Cornell Chronicle:

Cornell professor Bob Howarth played a key role – reckoning methane as a carbon dioxide equivalent – in New York state’s historic, environmentally comprehensive Climate Leadership and Communities Protection Act (CLCPA), which Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law July 18.  “It’s the most progressive legislation designed to avert climate change that any state has put out there,” said Howarth, the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology.

“New York has done what no other state has done, and that is to account properly for methane as a major atmospheric greenhouse gas contributor,” Howarth said. “It’s all in the way you figure methane into the global warming equation. That’s a significant part of this new law and this puts New York in a leadership role.”

Importantly, Howarth said, for the first time a state legislature has defined a “carbon dioxide equivalent” – for which methane now qualifies. That legal definition is the amount of another greenhouse gas by mass that produces the same global-warming impact as the given mass of carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame. Simply put, methane can now be compared to carbon dioxide, at a time scale appropriate for addressing the urgency of climate change.

Also, the new state law accounts for greenhouse gases produced outside of New York for the energy used within New York. “The new law says that when we use natural gas in New York, and if that natural gas came from Pennsylvania, then we have to take into account the methane emissions from Pennsylvania,” he said.

Most natural gas consumed in New York is fracked shale gas from Pennsylvania, and much of the unburned methane from that gas is emitted in Pennsylvania at well sites and compressor stations, long before the natural gas reaches the New York border. But by the time the natural gas gets to New York, its greenhouse gas emissions are undercounted and may seem small, said Howarth.

“Under the old accounting in New York, methane seemed trivial,” he said. “Under this new law, the new accounting means that methane is now larger than carbon dioxide – about 1.3 times larger than carbon dioxide for consumption of natural gas. That’s pretty powerful when you add it up.”

Dr. Howarth not only had a hand in the drafting of the CLCPA but now he is a prominent member of the Climate Action Council that will   “identify and make recommendations on regulatory measures and other state actions that will ensure the attainment of the statewide greenhouse gas emissions limits” (§ 75-0103).  During the emission inventory discussion at the August 24, 2020 Climate Action Council meeting he said that the State had done a good job with some of their proposed inventory but he thought that his recent paper did a better job in other parts of the inventory.  That paper includes the following statement:

A growing body of literature has suggested that methane emissions can contribute significantly to the GHG footprint of natural gas, including shale gas (Howarth et al. 2011; Howarth 2014; Alvarez et al. 2018). Some evidence indicates that shale-gas development in North America may have contributed one-third of the total global increase in methane emissions from all sources over the past decade (Howarth 2019).

I had never heard of the journal where the Howarth 2020 paper was published.  The Journal of Integrative Environmental Sciences “provides a stimulating, informative and critical forum for intellectual debate on significant environmental issues. It brings together perspectives from a wide range of disciplines and methodologies in both the social and natural sciences in an effort to develop integrative knowledge about the processes responsible for environmental change, the impact of environmental change on nature and society, and possible solutions.”  Frankly this paper is very similar to a blog post argument supporting the CLCPA.  But it does carry the imprimatur of a peer-reviewed article for the standard article publishing charge of $1200 for research and reviews articles and essays.

There are several instances where the language implies inside knowledge of the motives of the authors of the CLCPA. When describing the change to account for associated indirect emissions it says: “The goal of this change is to make sure that the citizens of New York State have a tool by which to judge their full climate footprint, acting locally but thinking globally to reduce emissions.” In the discussion about the changes for the global warming potential time scales (GWP) he states that: “A GWP that uses a shorter time frame for methane, and separately reporting methane and carbon dioxide emissions, may be appropriate if the concern is with the rate of global warming over the next few decades (Howarth 2014). The political leaders in New York who passed the CLCPA were influenced by this logic in their choice of the 20-year time frame; note that the CLCPA mandates a 40% reduction in GHG emissions within 10 years and an 85% reduction within 30 years.” Finally, he concludes: “For New York State, our political leaders chose to include methane emissions from outside of the State that are associated with energy use within the State and to weigh methane emissions over the 20-year time period, given the COP21 targets and the current rate of global warming.”

The Other Side of the Story

Recall that the Howarth 2020 paper claims “Some evidence indicates that shale-gas development in North America may have contributed one-third of the total global increase in methane emissions from all sources over the past decade (Howarth 2019).”  This paper and other similar papers claim that “methane emissions can contribute significantly to the GHG footprint of natural gas, including shale gas”.  There is a problem however, the claims are contradicted by other work.

In Howarth et al, 2011 he claims that 3.6% to 7.9% of the methane from shale-gas production escapes to the atmosphere in venting and leaks over the lifetime of a high-volume hydraulic fracturing well in a paper arguing that natural gas was not a good substitute for coal.  Natural gas is composed primarily of methane so the first red flag warning is the expectation that a well owner is going to accept that level of loss of the product he wants to sell.

Cathles et al., 2012 found serious flaws in Howarth paper noting that “they significantly overestimate the fugitive emissions associated with unconventional gas extraction, undervalue the contribution of “green technologies” to reducing those emissions to a level approaching that of conventional gas, base their comparison between gas and coal on heat rather than electricity generation (almost the sole use of coal), and assume a time interval over which to compute the relative climate impact of gas compared to coal that does not capture the contrast between the long residence time of CO2 and the short residence time of methane in the atmosphere.”

Lewan in review 2020 evaluates the claim in Howarth 2019 that “shale-gas development in North America may have contributed one-third of the total global increase in methane emissions from all sources over the past decade”.  The abstract states:

“The ideas and perspectives presented by Howarth (2019) on shale gas being a major cause of recent increases in global atmospheric methane are based on his notion that stable carbon isotopes of methane (δ13C1) of shale gas are lighter than that of conventional gas based on a meager and unrepresentative data set. A plethora of publicly available data show that the δ13C1 values of shale gas are typically heavier than those of conventional gas. This contradiction renders his ideas, perspectives, and calculations on methane emissions from shale gas invalid.”

Although I have been involved with emissions inventories for over 45 years, I do not have specific experience with natural gas production emissions.  However, over that time I learned early on that the gold standard check on any emissions inventory is comparison of the inventory estimate with observed ambient monitoring.  If there is a high quality, long-term monitoring network that measures the pollutant in the inventory and those measurements do not reflect the trend in the inventory then the inventory is wrong.

Lan et al., 2019 evaluated data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network and determined trends for 2006–2015.  This covers the period when Pennsylvania shale-gas production increased tremendously.  According to the plain language summary for the report:

In the past decade, natural gas production in the United States has increased by ~46%. Methane emissions associated with oil and natural gas productions have raised concerns since methane is a potent greenhouse gas with the second largest influence on global warming. Recent studies show conflicting results regarding whether methane emissions from oil and gas operations have been increased in the United States. Based on long‐term and well‐calibrated measurements, we find that (i) there is no large increase of total methane emissions in the United States in the past decade; (ii) there is a modest increase in oil and gas methane emissions, but this increase is much lower than some previous studies suggest; and (iii) the assumption of a time‐constant relationship between methane and ethane emissions has resulted in major overestimation of an oil and gas emissions trend in some previous studies.

As a result of the fact that the relevant high quality, long-term monitoring network did not show a trend consistent with the work of Howarth I believe that unequivocally supports Dr Lewan’s conclusion that his ideas, perspectives, and calculations on methane emissions from shale gas are invalid.

Finally, there is an even more fundamental problem with the methane obsession as it relates to global warming due to the greenhouse effect.  As more greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere, they reduce the amount of upward thermal radiation or heat from the surface that an escape the atmosphere.   The effect of each greenhouse gas depends on the properties of each greenhouse gas relative to thermal radiation and their concentration in the atmosphere.  A recent report explains that “For current concentrations of greenhouse gases, the radiative forcing at the tropopause, per added CH4 molecule, is about 30 times larger than the forcing per added carbon-dioxide (CO2 ) molecule”.

That is the rationale that the CLCPA used to incorporate the mandates for changes to the inventory.  However, when you consider the concentration in the atmosphere the potential effect is much less significant.  The paper notes: “The rate of increase of CO2 molecules, about 2.3 ppm/year (ppm = part per million), is about 300 times larger than the rate of increase of CH4 molecules, which has been around 0.0076 ppm/year since the year 2008. So, the contribution of methane to the annual increase in forcing is one tenth (30/300) that of carbon dioxide.”  The report concludes “Proposals to place harsh restrictions on methane emissions because of warming fears are not justified by facts.”


If this were only a disagreement about a scientific controversy that had no direct effect on society, then the obvious errors could be ignored by the general public.  However, the errors introduced by this irrational obsession with methane from natural gas has been incorporated into the CLCPA such that I think it will bring this issue to the attention of everyone far sooner than I expected.

Howarth’s 2020 paper includes estimates of 2015 emissions that indicate draconian limits on fossil fuel use will be necessary to meet the 2030 targets. That paper notes: “To meet the CLCPA 2030 target of a 40% emissions decrease will require a focus on greatly reducing the use of natural gas in the residential and commercial sector and petroleum products in transportation.” Perhaps you have heard of the slogan “no new fossil fuel infrastructure” in the context of blocking pipelines but it will literally hit close to home soon.  I bet that when the CLCPA control requirements are developed, “no new fossil fuel infrastructure” will mean that you cannot replace your current natural gas fired stove, hot water heater or furnace and that they will also have to come after your gasoline powered automobile.  Everything will have to be replaced by electric alternatives because electrification of heating and transportation is the only way to meet those targets.

Advocates for the CLCPA claim that renewables are cheaper and more resilient.  I don’t think that the costs of replacing all the existing fossil-fired infrastructure are included in the cost estimates and while solar and wind energy may be free, the cost to collect that energy and provide it when and where it is needed is far from free.  Increased resiliency is a joke.  Over-reliance on electricity will end badly when the inevitable ice storm knocks out power.  People will literally freeze to death in the dark when the alternative fossil fuels that can provide the energy needed to survive when the electricity is out are no longer available.

It will be interesting to see what happens when the general public is told that the concept that they can no longer use fossil fuels becomes reality.  I have to believe that questions will be asked about the value and rationale for that requirement and I hope that the politicians who mindlessly voted for this law are voted out.

Reposted from the Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York blog, the publisher of which has given permission to use this.

Editor’s Note: As I noted here, “We always knew Bob Howarth was a fractivist first and a scientist second, of course. We wrote about it here [too] and included this video of him wearing a ‘Drilling Is Not Safe’ button and rallying against natural gas development in 2010 even as his infamous junk science study was being prepared:”

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1 thought on “Howarth Methane Obsession Will Leave New Yorkers Freezing in the Dark

  1. Countries that are way ahead of NYS that still rely heavily on Fossil fuels…..

    In 2019, Germany generated electricity from the following sources: 29% coal, 25% wind, 14% nuclear, 10% natural gas, 9.1% solar, 8.7% biomass, 3.7% hydroelectricity.

    Norway has only one per cent of Europe’s population, but 20 per cent of the hydropower resources, 50 per cent of the water reservoirs (stored water for hydropower production), 40 per cent of the gas resources and 60 per cent of the oil resources.

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