Methane emissions from oil and gas may be significantly underestimated.

February 26, 2020

The fossil fuel industry may be responsible for a much greater share of the world’s methane emissions than previously estimated, according to new research that could intensify urgency around curbing the potent gas from oil and gas production according to a February 21, 2020 Scientific American report.

The research, published in the journal Nature, delves into the sources of “fossil” methane emissions, or methane that comes from the Earth’s geologic formations. There are two main ways fossil methane can be released into the atmosphere—human activities from fossil fuel production or natural processes, including the slow release of gas from mud volcanoes or undersea methane seeps.

Recent inventories have placed emissions from natural sources at around 4 to 60 million metric tons of methane each year. But the new study suggests these estimates are far too high. At the very most, natural sources might contribute about 5 million tons in a given year—and more like 1.5 million tons annually on average.

The researchers, led by Benjamin Hmiel of the University of Rochester, took a different approach to their estimates. Rather than adding up estimates of emissions from individual sources—what’s known as a “bottom-up” approach—they instead measured the methane inside long-frozen ice samples, retrieved from a site in Greenland.

The ice they sampled is several hundred years old—too old to contain any emissions from the fossil fuel industry. That means all the fossil methane preserved inside the ice comes from natural sources. They also compared these measurements with Antarctic samples from around the same time period.

The results suggest that researchers have been overestimating methane emissions from natural sources.
The new study suggests that if there’s less methane produced from natural sources, then emissions from the fossil fuel industry must be higher than previously suspected. The authors suggest that these estimates could be reasonably revised upward by about 40%.

If that’s the case, then the study may actually suggest an opportunity for more meaningful action to combat climate change by reducing human-caused methane emissions. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas—it has a much shorter lifetime in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but a much greater warming potential while it lasts. “Placing stricter methane emission regulations on the fossil fuel industry will have the potential to reduce future global warming to a larger extent than previously thought,” said lead author Hmiel in a statement.

What this means to you
A new study suggests there’s less methane produced from natural sources and methane emissions from the fossil fuel industry could be higher than previously suspected.

MIRATECH can help
Contact MIRATECH for stationary engine emission solutions.