[Vision2020] 1-16-18: New NASA Study Solves Climate Mystery, Confirms Methane Spike Tied to Oil and Gas

Ted Moffett starbliss at gmail.com
Wed Jan 17 19:47:35 PST 2018

Vision2020 Post: Ted Moffett
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Over and over we have heard from various sources promoting gas development
as a positive impact on anthropogenic global warming, given lower CO2
emissions per unit energy compared to coal electricity generation.
However, the methane greenhouse gas problem discussed in this article is
evidence to dampen gas electricity generation enthusiasm.  And even without
this problem, replacing one CO2 emitting fossil fuel with another one still
releasing lower CO2 emissions, will not solve the global warming dilemma
New NASA Study Solves Climate Mystery, Confirms Methane Spike Tied to Oil
and Gas

Sharon Kelly <https://www.desmogblog.com/user/sharon-kelly> | January 16,

Over the past few years, natural gas has become
<https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=25392> the primary fuel
that America uses to generate electricity, displacing the long-time king of
fossil fuels, coal. In 2019, more than a third of America's electrical
supply will come from natural gas, with coal falling to a second-ranked 28
percent, the Energy Information Administration predicted
this month, marking the growing ascendency of gas in the American
power market.

But new peer-reviewed research adds to the growing evidence that the shift
from coal to gas isn't necessarily good news for the climate.

A team led by scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory confirmed that the
oil and gas industry is responsible for the largest share of the world's
rising methane emissions
<https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-017-02246-0>, which are a major
factor in climate change — and in the process the researchers resolved one
of the mysteries that has plagued climate scientists over the past
several years.

Missing Methane

That mystery? Since 2006, methane emissions have been rising by about 25
teragrams (a unit of weight so large that NASA notes you'd need over
200,000 elephants to equal one teragram) every year. But when different
researchers sought to pinpoint the sources of that methane, they ran into
a problem.

If you added the growing amounts of methane pollution from oil and gas to
the rising amount of methane measured from other sources, like microbes in
wetlands and marshes, the totals came out too high — exceeding the levels
actually measured in the atmosphere. The numbers didn't add up.

It turns out, there was a third factor at play, one whose role was
underestimated, NASA's new paper concludes, after reviewing satellite data,
ground-level measurements, and chemical analyses of the emissions from
different sources.

A drop in the acreage burned in fires worldwide between 2006 and 2014 meant
that methane from those fires went down far more than scientists had
realized. Fire-related methane pollution dropped twice as much as
previously believed, the new paper, published in the journal *Nature
Communications*, reports.

Using this data, “the team showed that about 17 teragrams per year of the
increase is due to fossil fuels, another 12 is from wetlands or rice
farming, while fires are decreasing by about 4 teragrams per year,” NASA
said in a January 2 press release
“The three numbers combine to 25 teragrams a year — the same as the
observed increase.”

“A fun thing about this study was combining all this different evidence to
piece this puzzle together,” lead scientist John Worden of NASA's Jet
Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California said
<http://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/nasa-led-study-solves-a-methane-puzzle> in
a statement.
Shale Boom, Methane Boom

Less fun, unfortunately: the implications for the climate. Methane is a
major greenhouse gas, capable of trapping 86 times as much heat as the same
amount of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it hits the Earth's
atmosphere. So relatively tiny amounts of methane in the air can pack a
massive climate-changing punch.

“The sharp increase in methane emissions correlates closely with the U.S.
fracking boom,” said Jim Warren, executive director of the climate watchdog
group NC WARN. “Leaking and venting of unburned gas — which is mostly
methane — makes natural gas even worse for the climate than coal.”

The new NASA study is not the first to call attention to the connection
between oil and gas and methane leaks. A study in March last year found
that natural gas power plants
put out between 20 and 120 times more methane pollution than previously
believed, due in part to accidental leaks and in part to deliberate
“venting” by companies. And as far back as 2011, researchers from Cornell
University warned
that switching over from coal to gas could be a grave mistake where climate
change is concerned.

The NASA study may help settle the science on the oil and gas industry's
role in rising methane emissions.

To conduct their research, the scientists examined the methane molecules
linked to different sources, focusing on carbon isotopes in the molecules,
which helped them match the methane to different sources. Methane molecules
rising from wetlands and farms have a relatively small concentration of
heavy carbon isotopes, oil and gas-linked methane higher amounts, and
methane from fires the most heavy carbon. The scientists also cross-checked
their findings by looking at other associated gases, like ethane and carbon
monoxide — and the numbers all fell into place.

It turns out that fires worldwide burned up roughly 12 percent less acreage
during 2007 to 2014, compared to the prior roughly half-dozen years — but
the amount of methane from those fires fell more sharply, plunging nearly
twice as fast, measurements from NASA's Terra and Aura satellites revealed.

“There's been a ping-pong game of explanations going back and forth about
what might explain this,” Penn State University atmospheric scientist Ken
Davis told Mashable
“It's a complicated puzzle with a lot of parts, but [the study's
conclusions] do seem plausible and likely.”

That 2006-2014 lull in fires may be part of a larger trend. Historically,
“burning during the past century has been lower than at any time in the
past 2000 years,” one 2016 study
<https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4874420/> points out, due in
large part to the spread of fire suppression techniques.

But don't expect the lower methane emissions from less burning
<https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4874420/> worldwide to last
forever. One of the impacts of climate change is to make large wildfires
more likely, the Union of Concerned Scientists points out.

“Wildfire seasons (seasons with higher wildfire potential) in the United
States are projected to lengthen, with the southwest’s season of fire
potential lengthening from seven months to all year long
the group says
“Additionally, wildfires themselves are likely to be more severe

In the meantime, even while fires declined worldwide, methane emissions
overall have continued to rise sharply — and, according to NASA's latest
research, it turns out pollution linked to the oil and gas industry is
responsible for the biggest chunk of that growing problem.
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