Oxford Study: Methane a Distraction in Climate Change Discussion

Shale opponents’ obsession with methane emissions from oil and natural gas development is a distraction in terms of addressing climate change, according to a new study led by researchers from the University of Oxford.

The study argues that focusing on reducing CO2 is more important due to its cumulative impacts over time, a point a lead author of the study, Oxford climate scientist Raymond Pierrehumbert, made in the Washington Post:

People are placing too much emphasis on methane. And really, people should prove that we can actually get the CO2 emissions down first, before worrying about whether we are doing enough to get methane emissions down.”

Pierrehumbert’s comments come after he recently told Climate Central environmentalists’ continued focus on methane is misguided:

“… Methane is still just a sideshow, and relative to what the U.S. needs to do to fulfill its Paris commitments with regard to keeping the warming under 2°C, even a substantial upward revision of methane leakage is almost completely irrelevant. The warming due to steady methane emissions essentially stops increasing after just two decades, and is largely reversible once the leakage stops.”

Natural Gas Reduces CO2

Of course, we also know that natural gas – by reducing carbon dioxide emissions – is doing more to address climate change than anti-fracking activists would ever admit. In fact, since the shale revolution began, the United States has been a world leader in reducing CO2 emissions, as the following EID graphic illustrates:

co2 emissions trends

Increased use of natural gas for electricity generation has been the key driver of this dramatic progress in reducing CO2, as the U.S. EPA confirmed in its latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory:

“Recently, a decrease in the carbon intensity of fuels consumed to generate electricity has occurred due to a decrease in coal consumption, and increased natural gas consumption and other generation sources. Including all electricity generation modes, electricity generators used natural gas for approximately 27 percent of their total energy requirements in 2014.”

Many other reputable agencies have confirmed that increased use of natural gas is the single most significant contributor to reduced U.S. carbon emissions.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), since 2005, natural gas has prevented more than one billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted from power plants in the United States. Meanwhile, the use of renewable energy has prevented 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.  EIA also noted that, as natural gas fired electricity generation ramped up, power plant greenhouse gas emissions reached a 27-year low in April 2015.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency’s (IEA) latest World Energy Outlook pointed out that natural gas is a “valuable component of a gradually decarbonizing electricity and energy system.” Just a few weeks ago, IEA released data that showed, “In the United States, emissions declined by 2% (in 2015), as a large switch…to natural gas use in electricity generation took place.”

And new EIA data released this week show that CO2 emissions associated with energy production dropped 12 percent between 2005 and 2015. EIA says conversion to natural gas for electricity generation accounts for 68 percent of these reductions:

“Many of the changes in energy-related CO2 emissions in recent history have occurred in the electric power sector because of…the increased use of natural gas for electricity generation.”

Remarkably, EIA notes, the energy sector’s CO2 reductions have occurred even as the economy grew by 15 percent between 2005 and 2015, continuing a recent trend of decoupling of CO2 emission growth from economic growth recently highlighted by the International Energy Agency.

Methane Declining

EPA recently released some highly suspect revisionist data that upwardly revised methane emissions from oil and gas systems. Still, EPA’s new data shows methane emissions from natural gas systems have declined 0.68 percent since 2005 at the same time natural gas production has increased 42 percent. The new data also shows that methane emissions from natural gas systems are down 14.8 percent since 1990 (206.8 mmt CO2 eq. to 175.6). As noted earlier, natural gas production has increased 69 percent since 1990.

Even combining petroleum systems with natural gas systems, EPA’s new data indicate a drop in methane emissions from oil and natural gas systems since 1990. Oil production, by the way, has increased 16 percent since 1990.

Activists continue to focus on methane emissions from oil and gas being “higher than previously estimated,” but even the controversial new EPA data shows that methane emissions from industry are stable at worst and decreasing at best – doing so at a time in which production has skyrocketed.

And as the Oxford study shows, current trends are sufficient to minimize methane’s effect on global warming, even as the EPA preps to finalize costly and unnecessary new methane regulations on oil and natural gas systems. As Pierrehumbert told the Washington Post, EPA’s focus on methane could be costly in more ways than one:

“[I]f we don’t do a good job with CO2, that means as far as temperature targets go, the money we put into methane and black carbon, as far as climate goes anyway, is wasted.”

Methane emissions can have short term effects but the researchers show that stabilization of emissions is adequate, while reducing CO2, which has happened in the U.S. because of fracking and natural gas, is far more important.

Fortunately, the oil and natural gas industry are leading the way on both methane and CO2 reductions.


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