The mysterious recent spike in methane emissions? It just might be US fracking.

a drilling rig at sunset.
A shale gas drilling rig, against the obligatory stock photo sunset.

As greenhouse gases go, methane gets less attention than carbon dioxide, but it is a key contributor to climate change.

Methane doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as CO2 and is reabsorbed into terrestrial cycles via chemical reactions within 12 years or so. But while it’s up there, it’s much more potent, trapping heat at roughly 84 times the rate of CO2. Scientists estimate that around 25 percent of current global warming traces to methane.

When it comes to reducing CO2 emissions, the chain between cause and effect is frustratingly long and diffuse. Reduced emissions today won’t show up as reduced climate impacts for decades.

But with methane, the chain of causation is much shorter and simpler. Reduced emissions have an almost immediate climate impact. It’s a short-term climate lever, and if the countries of the world are going to hold rising temperatures to the United Nations’ target of “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial baseline, they’re going to need all the short-term climate levers they can get.

In the real world, though, the news about methane is bad and getting worse. It turns out that a mysterious recent spike in global methane levels that’s putting climate targets at risk may be coming from US oil and gas fracking. If that’s true, it’s bad news, because there’s lots more shale gas development in the pipeline and the Trump administration is busy rolling back regulations on the industry.

The mysterious spike in atmospheric methane may lead to America’s doorstep

Global methane emissions rose steeply in the last decades of the 20th century and then leveled off. But around 2006, they started heading up again. Why? What was the source? Scientists were baffled. (Jonathan Mingle wrote a great story for Undark on scientists’ search for answers.)

There are two broad sources of methane emissions: biogenic (plant and animal-based) and fossil fuel production. The former is mainly about agriculture (cow burps, pig poop, rotting organic waste) and tropical wetlands. As for the latter, methane is leaked or deliberately “flared” (burned off) at virtually every stage of fossil fuel production and transport, a problem that is notoriously bad for fracked shale gas and tight oil.

A few studies, including a major one in the journal Science in 2016, largely traced the recent spike in methane to biogenic sources, mainly because recent atmospheric methane has been “lighter,” depleted of its heavier carbon stable isotope (13C). Generally speaking, fossil fuel production produces heavier methane and biogenic sources produce lighter methane, so researchers have taken the trend as an indication that the recent spike is mostly biogenic in origin.

But it was a perplexing finding, one that the Science authors characterized as “unexpected, given the recent boom in unconventional gas production and reported resurgence in coal mining and the Asian economy.” If you see a big boom in fossil fuel production happening alongside a big spike in methane, you might expect to find the two connected.

In a new paper released in BiogeosciencesRobert Howarth of Cornell University has proposed a solution to the riddle.

Howarth is a familiar name to those who have followed methane debates over the years. He and colleagues at Cornell have been arguing for years that natural gas methane emissions are much higher than the government estimates or the industry admits, high enough to wipe out its supposed climate advantage over coal. That is a controversial position, to say the least. (Estimates of methane leakage vary widely, but Howarth’s is at the very top end.)

In his latest paper, Howarth is making a different point, springing from two facts he says previous studies have overlooked.

US natural gas by source

First, 63 percent of the total increase in global natural gas production in the 21st century has come from shale gas. And second, shale gas production using modern hydrofracturing techniques tends to produce lighter methane than conventional natural gas drilling.

Howarth finds that if the lighter methane of shale gas production is explicitly accounted for, “shale-gas production in North America over the past decade may have contributed more than half of all of the increased [methane] emissions from fossil fuels globally and approximately one-third of the total increased emissions from all sources globally over the past decade.”

Since 89 percent of the shale gas production comes from the US (Canada produced the rest), that’s a whole lot of accelerated global warming tracing right back to America’s front door.

It is worth emphasizing that this is only one paper in a very active field of research, from a controversial source, and it is sure to be debated and contested in coming years. But if it is right, or even only half right, it is bad news.

All signs point toward increased methane in coming years

If increased methane from shale gas is helping drive the spike in global methane emissions, the climate is in serious trouble, because there is every indication that shale gas emissions are higher than generally estimated and set to keep rising.

First, six years of intensive research from the Environmental Defense Fund has shown that methane emissions from US oil and natural gas production are as much as 60 percent higher than government estimates. This recent paper in Science summarizes: “Methane emissions of this magnitude, per unit of natural gas consumed, produce radiative forcing over a 20-year time horizon comparable to the CO2 from natural gas combustion.” Getting natural gas out of the ground and to its final destination releases as much methane as burning it — which, whether or not it makes gas “worse than coal,” makes it pretty bad.

Meanwhile, as Jennifer Dlouhy reports for Bloomberg, “the Trump administration is readying a plan to end direct federal regulation of methane leaks from oil and gas facilities, even as some energy companies insist they don’t want the relief.” The high-profile energy companies, the ones with large operations and lots of exposure to public opinion, rightly see this as a terrible idea. It makes them look like climate villains; it increases their exposure to climate risk and future policy shifts; it makes investors uncertain and hesitant. Oh, and it exacerbates climate change.

But the little companies, with lots of small, leaky wells scattered about, don’t want to be forced to clean them up; in many cases, being forced to run clean would destroy the economics and shut down the wells.

And Trump is personally dedicated to reversing everything Obama did, so … methane-wise, it’s back to the Wild West.

Trump speaks into a microphone as Wheeler looks on.
Trump with his EPA director Andrew Wheeler.

Third and most disturbingly, the US appears to be in the early stages of a massive fracking infrastructure buildout. A recent report from Food & Water Watch (FWW) charted this buildout, identifying “more than 700 fracked gas infrastructure projects that have been recently built or proposed for development.”

There are liquid natural gas export terminals: “In 2018, there were only three active LNG export facilities in the U.S., but 22 more were either being built or approved for construction, and an additional 22 were pending federal review by the end of the year.” There is the plastics industry, with “more than $202 billion slated for investment in ​333 new or expanded facilities.” And there is the electricity sector, with “plans to develop ​364 new fracked gas-fired plants​ by 2022.”

Despite escalating concerns over the climate impact of natural gas and signs that it is flagging somewhat in the electricity sector, the industry seems poised for enormous expansion. That is wildly irresponsible in the face of the widely agreed upon (by everyone but Republicans) need to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, in the US and globally, by midcentury.

With jurisdiction over the rapidly metastasizing shale gas industry, the US has direct control over one of the biggest and fastest-growing sources of potent, fast-acting methane. That means it also has, within its reach, the ability to make early and substantial progress on climate change.

Several Democratic candidates have proposed ending fracking on public lands; only a few (Jay Inslee, Bernie Sanders, and Tom Steyer) have explicitly proposed pursuing a national ban. That hasn’t been a top-tier policy dispute yet, but as scientists make the grim effects of fracking clearer and clearer, it’s going to become one.

Bonus trailer

Next Tuesday, a documentary called Blowout will be released on Amazon Video by Newsy, in partnership with the Associated Press, the Texas Tribune, and the Center for Public Integrity. The producers claim to have some new information about the local health impacts of living near oil and gas infrastructure, including increased incidence of cancers, childhood leukemia, preterm births, and upper respiratory problems. Should be worth checking out.

Bonus company

Remember that post I wrote about a company that will track power plant pollution using satellite imagery and artificial intelligence? There’s another startup proposing to do something similar, specifically focused on methane.

Bluefield promises “precise and scalable methane monitoring via microsatellites.” It plans to put a bunch of backpack-sized microsatellites into orbit; the sensors they carry will offer continuous data, identifying methane leaks within 20 meters, at roughly 90 percent lower cost than conventional methane monitoring. The company claims its sensors will identify 95 percent of all industrial leaks.

It’s early days for the company, obviously — they’re still in testing — but something like this seems inevitable. Methane sensing and tracking is going to improve, which will help clear up some of these atmospheric mysteries.

a bluefield microsatellite
A balloon hoisted a Bluefield microsatellite up 100,000 feet to test it out.

By David Roberts