As a boundless, invisible, and naturally odorless gas, methane is often overlooked as a climate issue. But this global gas accounts for nearly a quarter of anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing its emissions could greatly help the planet’s health.
Methane is a short-lived and powerful greenhouse gas which has nearly eighty times the warming power the first twenty years it reaches the Earth’s atmosphere compared to its better-known counterpart, carbon dioxide. Within the next decade, researchers estimate that cutting methane emissions could reduce potential warming by thirty-three percent.
Reducing methane emissions through smart policy and new means of monitoring the problem will buy time in the short term to address the growing climate crisis.
The Key Players in Methane Emissions
While a significant amount of methane is emitted naturally, roughly sixty percent is anthropogenic. Agriculture is one of the biggest emitters of anthropogenic methane emissions. In the International Energy Agency’s 2020 Methane Tracker report, agriculture was deemed responsible for nearly a quarter of methane emissions, closely followed by coal, oil, natural gas, and biofuels. In California, for example, nearly half its methane emissions come from ruminant (cud-chewing) livestock, such as cows.
Livestock and other ruminants, including sheep, goats, buffalo, deer, elk, giraffes, and camels, have a unique digestive system that contains microbes adept at digesting tough plant material. As these animals ruminate, they produce significant quantities (thirty or more quarts per hour) of methane and carbon dioxide; this causes these animals to belch and release these gases.
The cows are not all to blame, however.
While agriculture reigns supreme in methane emissions, oil and gas industries are also part of the mix—and how they can cut their emissions offers a realm of opportunities. If oil and gas industries made fundamental changes to their practices, three-quarters of methane emissions could be reduced.
For example, one oil field in the United States, located in Texas and New Mexico, emits more than twenty-two pounds of methane per hour, as reported in a recent study by NASA, the University of Arizona, and Arizona State University.
While oil fields already vent methane intentionally through pressure-relief valves, unintended leaks exacerbate the problem. Gargantuan orange and black methane plumes should only be visible infrequently. But if equipment breaks, blazing and billowing clouds of methane will be visible for a longer amount of time. Leaks can be repaired, but stronger regulation of planned methane emissions is a potential, albeit heavily debated, solution.
Is a ‘Methane Tax’ Fantasy or Future?
Economists have considered taxing methane as an avenue of reduction, but how does that look? Norway, a leading producer in the oil and gas industry, has a strict regulate-and-tax approach to carbon which applies to methane flaring. While such regulation is not mirrored in large countries such as the United States, individual states such as Wyoming and North Dakota have considered a methane tax since the 1980s. Unfortunately, their multiple proposals were met with vehement opposition from oil and gas companies.
A large hurdle to creating an effective methane tax is the stark variability of how regulations would be implemented. A methane tax would depend on the local environment, the industry, the size of emissions, and the goal. In other words, it would not be “one tax fits all.” That is not to say that larger countries, such as the United States, haven’t attempted such a feat. The Methane Emissions Reduction Act of 2021, for example, hopes to charge $1,800 per emission ton, though it is currently met with opposition and apprehension.
Although the variables involved make it difficult to establish a potential methane tax, implementing basic regulatory and monitoring requirements is an important step forward. The data compiled could then be used to require super-emitters to quickly address the events as they occur, rather than face the dire consequences of a long-term leak.
Technology Can Keep an Eye on Methane
New technologies, such as satellite and AI tracking, are a beacon of hope in monitoring methane emissions. Whereas leak detection and repair (LDR) has been used historically, new technologies are now considering planes, drones, and even satellites to monitor methane emissions from oil and gas systems.
The Sentinel-5 Precursor satellite, launched by the European Space Agency, orbits our Earth sixteen times a day and is on the lookout for methane concentrations in our atmosphere. Another pair of satellites named after its innovator’s children, Iris and Hugo, orbit less frequently than the Sentinel-5 Precursor, but can identify leaks using fine-grained imagery. Miraculously, these complex devices can detect the smallest methane emissions with unique specificity.
Launched in Europe, the Honeywell Rebellion Gas Cloud Imaging (GCI) camera can help facility operators track plume types, locations, direction, size, and concentration using easy-to-read visualizations to prevent catastrophic leaks. Buzzing drones, such as the RMLD-Sentry, can be deployed over various oil and gas facilities. Each drone can detect leaks using an infrared laser and change flight patterns based on methane emissions of a particular facility.
Reducing methane emission, in comparison to addressing carbon dioxide, can swiftly deliver results and provide nations a fighting chance to reach the Paris Agreement targets.
Cattle producers have considered alternative approaches to reducing methane emissions. In the case of cows and other ruminant livestock, farmers and ranchers are experimenting with adding supplements, such as fat, oil, or even seaweed, to their feed. Such changes could reduce methane emissions by 18%. Farming sustainability conferences, such as the UN Food Systems Summit in September 2021, can help set concrete goals for an environmentally friendly approach to agriculture.
Cutting methane emissions may appear to be a small part of the battle since carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for a much longer time—nearly hundreds to thousands of years. However, cutting carbon dioxide is the long game. Reducing methane, in comparison, can swiftly deliver results and give nations a fighting chance to reach the Paris Agreement targets. Beyond the environmental perspective, cutting methane could also prevent serious health harm such as asthma-related hospital visits and crop loss.
Like an unanticipated magic trick, humans have made an invisible gas undeniably visible in the climate crisis spotlight. How we proactively decide to cut methane emissions will buy us time for the Earth’s ticking clock.
*Chelsea Noack is a science writer and editor based in Manhattan. She is passionate about climate change, ocean science, bioethics, technology, and the future of human health.