Odourless, colourless and ruthless. In its structural simplicity (one carbon atom surrounded by four hydrogen atoms), methane can be a real pain in the neck. The gas is naturally generated by the fermentation of organic matter, such as pig manure, but also comes from sources as disparate as rice fields and cattle belch. As a greenhouse gas, it is at least 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that it has been responsible for 20 per cent of global warming since pre-industrial times.
In industrial times the worst emissions have taken place. Along with humanity’s excessive craving for pig and cow meat, the very fossil fuels that are responsible for carbon dioxide emissions have spewed out massive amounts of methane too. A string of recent studies has revealed that 2.3 per cent of natural gas escapes when used as fuel, nearly double the official estimates; that methane concentrations in the atmosphere have risen sharply in the last 20 years; and that nearly 70 per cent of annual methane emissions come from the fossil fuel sector.
Methane, the main component of natural gas (to which an offensive odour is added for security reasons), seeps out of gas wells, not to mention the miles of pipelines and municipal distribution lines. It escapes from oil operations too, where it is often burned-off on site – so-called ‘flaring’. ‘Roughly half of the methane the oil and gas industry is emitting could be cut at no cost,’ recently claimed Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency.
With an added cost, it could be restrained almost completely. In oil wells in which hydrogen sulphide is present – an odourless, colourless gas that is much more deadly, killing people as they inhale – the oil industry has developed zero leak technology. Why not use the same technology to prevent methane from flying away?
A group of the top oil and gas companies recently pledged to slash methane emissions by a fifth by 2025. Yet, the American administration has just started to relax regulations on the containment of methane leaks from fossil fuel operations. It is not just about Big Oil. It is about tens of thousands of oil and gas wells owned by private companies, often tiny, who pay little or no regard to the problems of letting methane escape.
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