Nationwide Air Sampling Confirms ‘Methane Emissions Across Large Parts Of The U.S. Are Higher Than Currently Known’

Real-world observations have repeatedly made clear that industrial methane emissions are larger than we think. See “Bridge To Nowhere? NOAA Confirms High Methane Leakage Rate Up To 9% From Gas Fields, Gutting Climate Benefit.” Here’s yet another study.

Methane data collected from Florida to California in 2010. Both the spatial average and the raw data show the highest levels were in the East Texas area, decreasing westward and eastward.

UC Santa Barbara news release

After taking a rented camper outfitted with special equipment to measure methane on a cross-continent drive, a UC Santa Barbara scientist has found that methane emissions across large parts of the U.S. are higher than currently known, confirming what other more local studies have found. Their research is published in the journal Atmospheric Environment.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, stronger than carbon dioxide on a 20-year timescale, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, though on a century timescale, carbon dioxide is far stronger. “This research suggests significant benefits to slowing climate change could result from reducing industrial methane emissions in parallel with efforts on carbon dioxide,” said Ira Leifer, a researcher with UCSB’s Marine Science Institute.

Leifer was joined by two UCSB undergraduate students on the road trip from Los Angeles to Florida, taking a primarily southern route through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and along the Gulf of Mexico. They used specialized instrumentation, a gas chromatograph, to measure methane. The device was mounted in the RV, with an air ram on the roof that collected air samples from in front of the vehicle.

“We tried to pass through urban areas during nighttime hours, to avoid being stuck in traffic and sampling mostly exhaust fumes,” Leifer said. “Someone was always monitoring the chromatograph, and when we would see a strong signal, we would look to see what potential sources were in the area, and modify the survey to investigate and, if possible, circumnavigate potential sources.”

The researchers meandered slowly through areas of fossil fuel activity, such as petroleum and natural gas production, refining, and distribution areas, and other areas of interest. The wide range of sources studied included a coal-loading terminal, a wildfire, and wetlands.

The team analyzed the data in conjunction with researchers at the University of Bremen, Germany, who analyzed inventories and satellite data from the Scanning Imaging Absorption Spectrometer for Atmospheric Chartography (SCIAMACHY) instrument onboard the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ENVISAT satellite to confirm the finding of strong methane sources in regions of fossil fuel activity. The surface measurements found methane levels increased as the researchers moved toward Houston, and then decreased as they continued westward –– the same trend observed in satellite data spanning the continent.

Previous methane studies have focused primarily on large-scale airborne data, which were challenging to separate from local sources, according to Leifer. In fact, clear identification of individual sources often could not be conducted, requiring computer models and other surface measurements.

The team compared maps of estimated methane emissions based on data from the International Energy Agency of the U.S. Department of Energy with satellite methane maps. They found that, in some cases, to explain observed higher methane concentrations required higher emissions than current emission maps present, particularly in large regions of fossil fuel industrial activity. In other cases, though, they could rule out that wetlands such as swamps may have been important. In such cases, separating wetland methane contributions from fossil fuel industrial contributions was not possible with their approach, Leifer said, “This is a topic we are investigating further through new research,” he added.

“Methane is the strongest human greenhouse gas on a political or short timescale, and also has more bang for the buck in terms of addressing climate change,” said Leifer. “This research supports other recent findings suggesting that fugitive emissions from fossil fuel industrial activity actually are the largest methane source. This clearly indicates a need for efforts to focus on reducing these methane emissions.”

The researchers found the highest methane concentrations in areas with significant refinery activity, and in California in a Central Valley region of oil and gas production. Methane levels near refineries were not uniform, varying greatly from spot to spot and at different times. Nighttime concentrations were dramatically enhanced when the winds died down, forming a calm, shallow atmospheric layer near the surface, according to Leifer.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery was made in the Los Angeles area, where the study highlighted the importance of geologic methane emissions in the North Los Angeles Basin, centered on the La Brea Tar Pits. Rough estimation of emissions from the data suggests 10-20 percent of the methane emissions from Los Angeles could be natural geologic, influenced by the vast number of abandoned wells throughout the area.

UC Santa Barbara news release

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19 Responses to Nationwide Air Sampling Confirms ‘Methane Emissions Across Large Parts Of The U.S. Are Higher Than Currently Known’

  1. Sue says:

    This issue of leakage needs a lot more attention.
    Are we worsening our precarious situation by punching more and more holes in our planet?

    In pa, there are already thousands of old, unmapped and unregulated holes for the stuffntonescape thru when released by nearby FRACKING!

  2. Raul M. says:
    UCTv Prime focuses on Scripps Institute of Oceanography and even a speach by Sec. Of State Clinton showing the effects of short lived emmissions such as methane, black carbon, and HFC’s.

  3. Alejandro González says:

    Above it reads: “Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, stronger than carbon dioxide on a 20-year timescale, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, though on a century timescale, carbon dioxide is far stronger”. To my knowledge is not like this. According to IPPC Methane is 72 times stronger than CO2 at 20-year timescale; 25 times stronger at 100-year; and 7 times stronger at 500 years. These are the so-called Global Warming Potentials, and they have to do with radiative forcing. In the report Physical Basics (IPCC) is explained in details and a table for several gases depicted.

  4. elisabeth says:

    “Rough estimation of emissions from the data suggests 10-20 percent of the methane emissions from Los Angeles could be natural geologic, influenced by the vast number of abandoned wells throughout the area.” Why are abandoned wells called ‘natural’? Drillers years ago created the channel for the methane to escape. And then left. When drillers abandon fracked wells in the future, the methane (and toxic chemical leaks) should not be considered natural.

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    And how many fracking shafts will there be, with the rapid depletion rate involved? Sounds like the USA might simply ‘fray at the edges’.

  6. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    A stolen quote “only you can stop faucet fires Stop fracking now”

  7. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I wonder how long it will be before we get reports of this in Oz. Probably before the scientific study is completed, ME

  8. Stan Scobie says:

    Agree with Gonzalez above:

    “Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, stronger than carbon dioxide on a 20-year timescale, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, though on a century timescale, carbon dioxide is far stronger.”

    is a completely incorrect statement. Methane is far more potent than CO2 at both time scales.

    This is the second time I have seen this and it appears that writers are copying from an illiterate source.

    I am a colleague of Howarth and Ingraffea and this powerful and fairly long lasting effect of leaked methane is a key objection of ours to extreme shale gas extraction.

    Stanley R Scobie, PH.D., Senior Fellow. PSE Healthy Energy

  9. rollin says:

    Too bad they didn’t wander across Pennsylvania.

    We keep punching holes in the earth, keep drilling for gas, keep feeding cattle improperly, keep warming the planet; so what is so surprising when methane is released? I would not be surprised if methane became the number one cause of global warming in the near future. Of course we all know that methane becomes CO2 after a time, so it’s effects are for thousands of years. When the hydrates kick in further, we no longer have control.

    If we wait long enough we can shut off man-made production of CO2 and have very little effect on the outcome. I wonder when the lines cross.

  10. Joe Romm says:

    You are right and that news release is quite wrong on this point. My apologies for not noticing that. What kind of world do we live in where even news from universities can’t be trusted.

  11. BobbyL says:

    Good catch.

  12. Paul Klinkman says:

    I’ll vote too. We need about 100 times as much methane sampling, both in the USA and worldwide. We need to zero in on the worst regions, then the worst point-source offenders. Would some foundation please chip in for the sampling equipment and the gas/electric/biodiesel money?

  13. The USA has frayed at the edges. And that was before fracking.

  14. A world controlled by mega corporations. Remember last year’s big flat about the the fracking study at the University of Texas that was run by a guy who who also worked for gas companies but conveniently forgot to disclose that fact? A lot — actually way too much research in this country is funded by corporations.

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You guys are amateurs. Our late, unlamented, PM, John Howard, appointed a pro-coal ‘scientist’ to the position of ‘Chief Scientist’ while still working, and continuing to do so, for Rio Tinto, the big carbon miner. Accusations of ‘conflicts of interest’, or the weasel expression ‘perceived conflicts of interest’ were furiously denied. In the interests of avoiding any defamation, the truth being rather unforgiving, if interested just look up Mr Batterham. He’s still pushing coal-mining, as if there were no tomorrow-which thanks to his like, there probably isn’t.

  16. Lou Grinzo says:

    Looks like it’s time to bring up, yet again, something I started talking about some time back: Forget the Anthropocene, a period when human activities modify the climate, and acknowledge that we’re beyond that and now find ourselves in the Metricene (my term), a period when we have no choice but to explicitly control the environment.

    I summarize this as a time when we’ll have to “live measured lives on a managed planet”. The ongoing methane issue, whether the gas is from agriculture, well and coal mine leaks, melting permafrost, or whatever, is a perfect example. We can no longer sit back and say, “Don’t worry about it — it will take care of itself.” We have so filled the world with people and the impacts of how we do everything that we no longer have any spare room for most of our waste and byproducts. Every unsustainable action matters, and in particular, every emission that accelerates climate change matters.

    I detest this situation, but it’s irrelevant how I or anyone else feels about it; the universe is stunningly, infinitely indifferent to human affairs. It is up to us to find the maturity and develop the capability to manage the mess we’ve created, or pay a horrific price.

  17. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Philip, you remind me that my dad, a wise old bushie, never been out of the country before, did a 3 month tour of the USA in 1983 after he and mum retired, to see the miracle country that was the USA. He wrote pages of observations everyday. When I asked him for a summary, he just shook his head and said ‘darling, that country is on the skids’. As I know now, freedom is not every individual for themself, ‘doing their own thing’: it is the opportunity for everybody to grow together as they work together, which I think was originally the ethic of the US but which has been lost in the rush to privatization, ME

  18. David Lewis says:

    Keith Shine at U of Reading, UK, one of the originators of the GWP concept says the work of Drew Shindell of NASA GISS “does change the picture” presented by the IPCC AR4 of the GWP of methane “quite significantly”, i.e. Shindell says the impact of methane is about 30% greater than what the AR4 states, and, Shindell says, his new numbers “may still be too low”. I wrote about Shindell in an article on the Howarth study some years ago, here.

    Those who need to dump on the Howarth study which concluded that leaking methane associated with production transport and distribution makes a mockery of the belief that US GHG emissions are declining as the country switches out a lot of coal burning in favor of the use of gas should consider what it means when they admit that the data available on methane leakage is not that good. Everyone agrees more study is needed, yet far too many assume we can now say the increased use of gas in the US is doing something about US GHG emissions.

  19. Ed Leaver says:

    I expect Leifer and students shouldn’t have much trouble categorising fossil methane from wetland and other current biogenic sources, as the latter should contain detectable carbon-14. Their present instrument may well be sensitive enough to detect it; if not there are GC-MS alternatives. The team is likely spending time researching just what various C-14/C-12 ratios mean in terms of possible combinations of age and mixtures of source. Cool chemistry.