Environment
5:09 pm
Mon November 25, 2013

U.S. May Be Producing 50 Percent More Methane Than EPA Thinks

Originally published on Mon November 25, 2013 6:59 pm

Methane is the source of the gas we burn in stoves. You can also use it to make plastics, antifreeze or fertilizer. It comes out of underground deposits, but it also seeps up from swamps, landfills, even the stomachs of cows.

And while methane is valuable, a lot of it gets up into the atmosphere, where it becomes a very damaging greenhouse gas.

Scientists have been trying to find out, with varying success, exactly how much of this climate-warming gas gets into the atmosphere. A study published in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests there's much more up there than previously thought.

"Our numbers for the entire United States are about a factor of 1.5 times larger than the [estimates of] the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency," says the study's co-author Scot Miller, a doctoral student in earth sciences at Harvard University.

That's a serious discrepancy, Miller says, considering the hundreds of millions of tons of a very potent greenhouse gas going up every year.

And in the atmosphere over some regions — Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma — the study found more than 2.5 times the methane that the EPA and other groups have measured.

Miller says he's not that surprised at these higher numbers. "It's a really, really difficult problem to try and estimate greenhouse gas emissions," he says.

Traditionally, the EPA has made its estimates using a mostly "bottom-up" approach — plugging into a computer model, for example, the estimated individual outputs from all the nation's gas drilling sites, swamps, refineries and herds of cattle that belch and otherwise excrete the gas as a normal part of digestion.

The new study — a collaboration of scientists from universities, the U.S. government and Europe — instead took almost 13,000 measurements directly from the atmosphere in 2007 and 2008. They collected their measurements from cell towers as tall as the Empire State Building, as well as from airplanes.

These "top-down" measurements directly checked the actual methane content of the air, and found that what's airborne is more than the sum of the ground measurements, Miller says.

Still, he says, the top-down approach has its weaknesses, too. For example, you can't as easily deconstruct the total to see how much came from a particular well site versus an individual feedlot.

Environmental scientist Rob Jackson, with Duke University, says bottom-up measurements usually turn up lower numbers for methane leakage than measurements taken in the air do, and that's been a problem for people trying to get a handle on emissions from the natural gas boom in the U.S.

"I think bottom-up measurements are lower because we miss the few percent of sites that are really leaking a lot of gases," Jackson says. "We probably have 90 percent of oil and gas operations that are pretty clean, and a few percent that leak like a sieve."

And those few aren't necessarily easy to find when you are talking about tens of thousands of sites across a nation.

"It's like trying to find that needle in the haystack," Jackson says. "The needle's there, but you've got to do a lot of on-the-ground sampling to find that needle, and most times people don't do that."

Jackson also says the higher emissions the PNAS study found in the south-central U.S. suggests that oil and gas operations there are emitting more methane than previously thought.

Miller and Jackson both say it's important to get these numbers right.

Some states already have — or are contemplating — limits on methane emissions from industry and agriculture. But if the EPA's estimates of what's going up into the air actually are off by half — as the new study suggests — it could make those limits meaningless.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Methane is the source of the gas we burn in stoves. You can also use it to make everything from plastics and anti-freeze to fertilizer. It comes out of underground deposits. But it also comes from swamps, landfills, even the stomachs of cows. While methane is valuable, a lot of it gets away into the atmosphere, where it becomes a damaging greenhouse gas. Scientists have been trying to find out how much of this climate-warming gas gets into the atmosphere, with varying success.

NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on a new study that says there's much more up there than we thought.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tries to keep track of methane that goes up into the atmosphere. But a new study says they've got it wrong, on average by 50 percent.

SCOT MILLER: Our numbers for the entire United States are about a factor of 1.5 larger than the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

JOYCE: Scot Miller is a PhD candidate at Harvard University and co-author of a new study on methane published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He says 1.5 times the EPA estimate is serious because you're talking about hundreds of millions of tons of a very potent greenhouse gas going up every year. And in some parts of the atmosphere, over Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma, the new study found more than 2.5 times the methane that EPA and other groups have measured. Miller says he's not that surprised at these higher numbers.

MILLER: It's a really, really difficult problem to try and estimate greenhouse gas emissions.

JOYCE: The EPA calculates how much to expect from all the nation's gas drilling sites and swamps and refineries, even individual cows that burp it up. But it's mostly a bottom-up approach, looking at sources of methane by using computer models and adding them all up. The new study, by scientists from universities, the federal government and Europe, took almost 13,000 measurements in 2007 and 2008.

They collected them from cell towers as high as the Empire State Building, as well as from airplanes. It was a top-down study, looking at what's actually up in the air. And they found that what's airborne is more than the sum of the ground measurements. Now, the top down approach does have its weaknesses.

MILLER: It's very difficult to desegregate, you know, how much methane came from a well site or a particular feed-lot, et cetera.

JOYCE: On the other hand, it's based on actual measurements, not just computer models and calculations. Environmental scientist Rob Jackson says bottom up measurements usually come up with lower numbers for methane leakage than measurements in the air. This has been a problem for people trying to get a handle on emissions from the country's natural gas boom, for example.

ROB JACKSON: I think bottom up measurements are lower because we miss the few percent of sites that are really leaking a lot of gases. We probably have 90 percent of oil and gas operations that are pretty clean, and a few percent that leak like a sieve.

JOYCE: And those few aren't necessarily easy to find when you're talking about tens of thousands of sites in the country.

JACKSON: It's like trying to find that needle in the haystack. The needle's there but you've got to do a lot of on-the-ground sampling to find that needle and most times, people don't do that.

JOYCE: Jackson, from Duke University, also says the higher emissions found in the South Central U.S. suggests that oil and gas operations are emitting more methane than previously thought. Miller and Jackson say it's important to get these numbers right. Some states have or are contemplating limits on methane emissions from industry and agriculture. If the current estimates of what's actually going up in the air are off by half, that could make those limits meaningless. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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