Methane Emissions Going Down, Despite Cornell Hype from 5 Years Ago

Tom Shepstone
Natural Gas NOW


Remember when Cornell’s Bob Howarth proclaimed natural gas was worse than coal due to methane emissions? Well, the latest data says those emissions are down.

Methane emissions, about five years ago, became a trendy subject among those desperate to stop natural gas development. They had previously hung their hat on CO2 emissions, but when it became clear natural gas substitution for coal had achieved the only meaningful reductions in CO2 anywhere in the world, they shifted the argument to methane emissions.

Cornell professor and anti-gas advocate Bob Howarth (also a Food & Water Watch board member) was part of that. He published an article titled “A bridge to nowhere: methane emissions and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas,” in which he claimed “shale gas and conventional natural gas have a larger GHG than do coal or oil.” It was more an advocacy piece than science and assumptions from the study are now being proven wrong.

What I’m taking about is a new study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that indicates the following (emphasis added):

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.

Also, read Energy In Depth‘s excellent analysis here. Their graphic nicely summarizes what’s happening in the real world:

methane emissions

I’m sure Bob Howarth will come up with some reason why this doesn’t matter but, of course, it does matter—and a whole lot. This is because Bob was more equivocal than it might have first appeared if you took the time to read deep into his report where he said this:

Is natural gas a bridge fuel? At best, using natural gas rather than coal to generate electricity might result in a very modest reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions, if those emissions can be kept below a range of 2.4–3.2% (based on [40], adjusted for the latest information on radiative forcing of methane [34]).

So, natural gas contributions might be better than coal if the numbers are lower, Bob says. Well, now we have the evidence they are much lower. And, it’s not the only recent evidence. A Penn State study titled “Estimating methane emissions from underground coal1and natural gas production in southwestern2Pennsylvania,” just concluded the following:

Energy produced through unconventional natural gas production in Pennsylvania has half the carbon footprint compared to energy produced from regional underground coal mining

Emissions from [unconventional natural gas in Southwestern Pennsylvania] agree with other studies analyzing emission rates from the Marcellus Shale, showing emission rates lower than the national average when scaled to production, but higher than state reported estimates by a factor of 2 to 8. Despite this large discrepancy, CH4 [methane] emissions from [unconventional natural gas} sources with small emission rates contribute only a small fraction to their total greenhouse footprint compared to the CO2 released through combustion process over a 100 year period.

Bob Howarth’s conclusions on methane, as contrasted with CO2 emissions, are totally contradicted. CO2 emissions are far more important and we already know how natural gas beats coal hands down on that score, don’t we? Not a great week for Bob Howarth.

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4 thoughts on “Methane Emissions Going Down, Despite Cornell Hype from 5 Years Ago

  1. Tom,
    Did Bob ever consider the amount of methane that naturally occurs and/or the amounts given off by wastewater/composting operations and landfills?
    Without the incentive to try and control such emissions, you are only adding more “fuel to the fire”.
    Well meaning (usually tax supported) programs to divert organics such as food wastes to Landfills are all well in good on the surface. However, without the full capture of inherent methane and other gases which can be used for combined heat and power can cause more harm than good.
    Social engineers want to keep people out of the woods and concentrate them in cities. Even without nefarious intentions (yeah, right), that’s a lot more people ..and with more people comes more poop and other wastes. So what do you do with it? Due to natural exothermic properties of any organism, you release by respiration…it’s an issue to deal with. You might as well as put it to good use along with other energy sources.
    I notice some of those here in the peanut gallery never even touch on those options and/or solutions. I wonder why???

  2. “Refrigeration and air-conditioning is composed of many end-uses, including household refrigeration, domestic air conditioning and heat pumps, mobile air conditioning, chillers, retail food refrigeration, cold storage warehouses, refrigerated transport, industrial process refrigeration, and commercial unitary air conditioning systems. Historically, this sector has used various ozone-depleting substances (ODS) such as CFCs and HCFCs as refrigerants. These ODS are being phased out under the Montreal Protocol and are being replaced with HFCs. HFC emissions from the refrigeration and air conditioning sector result from the manufacturing process, from leakage over the operational life of the equipment, and from disposal at the end of the useful life of the equipment. These gases have 100-year global warming potentials (GWP), which are 140 to 11,700 times that of carbon dioxide, so their potential impact on climate change can be significant (Table 1)” Calculating HFC and PFC Emissions from the Manufacturing, Installation, Operation and Disposal of Refrigeration & Airconditioning Equipment (Version 1.0) Guide to calculation worksheets (January 2005)

    Perhaps everyone who thinks that a Tesla will save the world should never own an air conditioner nor have one in her Tesla. On a hot day in June anywhere on the East Coast that would be a sight to see. Okay all you Torquemadas, let’s see if you can stand the heat of your own Inquisition when applied to you with the same rigor as you applied to the rest of the civilized world.

  3. “Methane Emissions Going Down, ” Tom

    The actual data you are citing:
    “there is a modest increase in oil and gas methane emissions”

    Is your title accurate?

    “EIA forecasts production of natural gas to leap 60% out to 2050”
    With nat gas use doubling – do you think global methane emissions will go up?
    By how much?
    What impact will that rise in global methane levels have on global warming?
    DO you know of any studies looking at the impact of these rising methane levels on global warming?

    (I’m not asking about studies of US methane leakage rates – I’m asking about the impact wrapping the planet in a new global methane industry will have on warming cased by greenhouse gas emissions.)

  4. Have any of these studies looked at how much methane is given off by coal mining? If you go into an active coal mine it is like being in a wind tunnel. Mines move vast volumes of air constantly to vent out the methane given off by the coal. They also are required to have ventilation shafts to allow for more venting. Failure to do so will result in huge explosions, which kill many miners every year.

    Also, the coal with continue to off gas methane while it is transported by rail, barge, or ship. It will continue to off gas methane while it is in storage at coal-fired electric generation plants, coking facilities, and other end uses. As coal ages, it loses serious BTU content as it off gasses methane and other gasses.

    i would wager that when all is considered, coal adds more methane to the atmosphere than nat gas production does since nat gas is done with a closed loop system.

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