GHG Emissions Underestimated, Under-tracked

GHG Emissions Underestimated, Under-tracked

New tracking and data show that methane emissions are massively underestimated. A new analysis from the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that methane emissions from the energy sector are 70% higher than officially reported numbers. Methane emissions come from oil, coal, gas production, as well as leaks in pipelines. If all of the leaked gas in 2021 (180 billion cubic meters) had been captured, it would equal all the gas used in Europe’s power sector.

Methane is not alone in being miscalculated and poorly tracked. Another analysis in the US found that over the past 10 years, oil and gas operators have been flaring (burn off) and venting (directly releasing into the air) huge quantities of gas. At least 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas were flared, the emissions equivalent of about 42 million cars driving for a year. The amount of gas vented is unknown. These two processes don't even produce energy: sometimes it’s cheaper for companies to release or burn off the gas than to process and transport it.

Cronkite News: Gaslit, February 24, 2022.

Why This Matters

Methane is one of the primary greenhouse gases causing the climate crisis -- along with carbon dioxide. About 30% of global warming can be traced back to methane, which is 86 times more potent in trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 20-year period. Reducing methane emissions is key to preventing the worst impacts of the climate crisis. But to reduce these emissions, the first step is to have the monitoring and data. And new satellite data helped make this year’s numbers more accurate than in the past.

The Biden Administration announced plans to reduce methane emissions during last year's COP26, but for those plans to succeed, they would need to know when, where, and how much methane is being flared and vented. Data that is currently not well tracked.

"You can't regulate what you don't measure," Gunnar Schade, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University who has used satellite data to study flaring, told Inside Climate News. "We actually don't have a good handle on what goes in the atmosphere for various reasons -- some of them by design, some of them by negligence.

Now This: Methane - The Greenhouse Gas We Can No Longer Ignore, August 23, 2021.

FT: Gas flaring - Can we rein in the waste and pollution?, Sep 21, 2021.

Breaking Down Methane Emission Sources

About 40% of methane emissions come from the energy sector. Reducing these emissions is "one of the best near-term opportunities for limiting global warming," the IEA writes, since the route to ramping emissions down is known.

China is the largest methane emitter at 28 million tons, followed by Russia at 18 million tons. Big oil-producing countries in the Middle East have relatively small methane emissions and few leaks, while central Asia’s producers are more leak-prone. The US is the third-largest emitter, thanks in part to oil and gas facilities in Texas.

Bloomberg: Bloomberg Green - The Dangers of Methane Gas, October 11, 2021.

Washington Post: Greenhouse gas emissions numbers are way off. Here’s why that matters, November 8, 2021.