As the world’s econ­o­my rebounds from the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, demand for oil and gas is set to increase — and so is the emis­sion of methane, a potent green­house gas with 80 times the heat-trap­ping pow­er of car­bon diox­ide. The fos­sil fuel indus­try is one of the biggest sources of human-gen­er­at­ed methane emis­sions, emit­ting 70 met­ric tons of the pol­lut­ing gas last year — rough­ly equiv­a­lent to all the car­bon diox­ide pro­duced by the Euro­pean Union.

Plug the leaks

Nat­ur­al gas is pro­duced by drilling or hydraulic frac­tur­ing (bet­ter known as frack­ing), and is also extract­ed as a byprod­uct of drilling for oil. Because the gas is invis­i­ble and odor­less, detect­ing leaks can be chal­leng­ing. And leaks can occur at any point in the process, from extrac­tion out of the ground to the moment where the gas is burned in a pow­er plant.

Among the most cost-effec­tive steps nat­ur­al gas pro­duc­ers can take is replac­ing old equip­ment, the EIA notes. Many pumps, valves and com­pres­sors on a gas-drilling pad emit methane in the course of their oper­a­tions, and tend to emit more as they age — espe­cial­ly if they aren’t main­tained. The EIA rec­om­mends replac­ing many com­po­nents ear­ly and replac­ing gas-pow­ered parts with elec­tri­fied ver­sions, which leak less gas in their operations.

Detect­ing leaks ear­ly and often, through tech­nol­o­gy such as infrared cam­eras or satel­lite imag­ing, can also help plug up leaks. The EIA also rec­om­mends elim­i­nat­ing the prac­tice of vent­ing, or releas­ing nat­ur­al gas straight into the atmos­phere, in order to emp­ty a pipe for main­te­nance or when extrac­tion com­pa­nies are get­ting rid of unwant­ed nat­ur­al gas to col­lect oil.

Nat­ur­al gas is essen­tial­ly just methane, and in many cas­es if you can avoid that methane leak, you can sell that gas for prof­it,” Christophe McGlade, the head of IEA’s Ener­gy Sup­ply Unit, told CBS MoneyWatch.

Big part of global warming”

These recov­ery steps all result in gas pro­duc­ers hav­ing more prod­uct to sell, so they tend to be more valu­able for the indus­try when the cost of gas is high. In the U.S., gas prices have been low for years, thanks to the frack­ing boom, and is one rea­son why U.S. oil and gas pro­duc­ers have been loath to crack down on methane leaks.

You have, I would­n’t say an over­sup­ply of gas, but you’re very flush with gas. So the finan­cial num­bers for reduc­ing [leaks] with no exter­nal pres­sure are actu­al­ly quite low,” said Dan Zim­mer­le, a senior research asso­ciate at the Ener­gy Insti­tute of Col­orado State University.

Recent research has shown that oil and gas extrac­tion emits much more methane gas than pre­vi­ous­ly believed. Satel­lite imag­ing last year revealed that the Per­mi­an Basin in West Texas was leak­ing enough methane every year to pow­er 7 mil­lion house­holds. Some 3.7% of the gas extract­ed from the area was lost as emis­sions, a study from the Envi­ron­men­tal Defense Fund found.

That fig­ure mat­ters because the leak­age rate of methane is direct­ly tied to its role as an osten­si­bly low-emis­sions fuel. If just 1% of cap­tured gas escapes, “there’s no doubt that it’s bet­ter than coal; there’s no doubt that it’s bet­ter than just about any fos­sil fuel source there is,” said Zimmerle.

At a leak­age rate of 2% or 2.5%, how­ev­er, burn­ing nat­ur­al gas has the same cli­mate impact as burn­ing coal. Research by oth­er sci­en­tists, includ­ing Robert Howarth, a pro­fes­sor of ecol­o­gy and envi­ron­men­tal biol­o­gy at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty, shows that the oil and gas indus­try’s leak­age rate may be even high­er — approach­ing 4%.

Con­cen­tra­tions of methane in the Earth­’s atmos­phere have increased steadi­ly since about 2010, after stay­ing flat for the first decade of this century.

My research sug­gests that most of that is com­ing from the oil and gas indus­try, and it’s respon­si­ble for a big part of glob­al warm­ing,” Howarth said.

Con­gress recent­ly moved to crack down on green­house gas emis­sions from extrac­tion sites, open­ing the door for the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency to craft tighter rules for the industry.

To date, human-caused green­house gas emis­sions have warmed the plan­et by about 1.1 degrees Cel­sius, research shows. About a quar­ter of that warm­ing is attrib­uted to methane, Howarth said.

Methane stays in the atmos­phere for a short­er peri­od of time than car­bon diox­ide, dis­si­pat­ing after sev­er­al decades, while CO2 stays in the atmos­phere for cen­turies. But methane can trap 80 times the heat of car­bon diox­ide dur­ing its lifes­pan, mak­ing it much more dam­ag­ing to the cli­mate short-term.

We should be doing any­thing we can to trim the rate of warm­ing,” Howarth said. “We can do a lot of dam­age in the next few years. You actu­al­ly run the risk of irre­versible, cat­a­stroph­ic warming.”