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New NASA Study Solves Climate Mystery, Confirms Methane Spike Tied to Oil and Gas
By Sharon Kelly
Over the past few years, natural gas has become the primary fuel that America uses to generate electricity, displacing the long-time king of fossil fuels, coal. In 2019, more than a third of America's electrical supply will come from natural gas, with coal falling to a second-ranked 28 percent, the Energy Information Administration predicted this month, marking the growing ascendency of gas in the American power market.
But new peer-reviewed research adds to the growing evidence that the shift from coal to gas isn't necessarily good news for the climate.
A team led by scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory confirmed that the oil and gas industry is responsible for the largest share of the world's rising methane emissions—which are a major factor in climate change—and in the process the researchers resolved one of the mysteries that has plagued climate scientists over the past several years.
That mystery? Since 2006, methane emissions have been rising by about 25 teragrams (a unit of weight so large that NASA notes you'd need more than 200,000 elephants to equal one teragram) every year. But when different researchers sought to pinpoint the sources of that methane, they ran into a problem.
If you added the growing amounts of methane pollution from oil and gas to the rising amount of methane measured from other sources, like microbes in wetlands and marshes, the totals came out too high—exceeding the levels actually measured in the atmosphere. The numbers didn't add up.
It turns out, there was a third factor at play, one whose role was underestimated, NASA's new paper concludes, after reviewing satellite data, ground-level measurements and chemical analyses of the emissions from different sources.
A drop in the acreage burned in fires worldwide between 2006 and 2014 meant that methane from those fires went down far more than scientists had realized. Fire-related methane pollution dropped twice as much as previously believed, the new paper, published in the journal Nature Communications, reports.
Using this data, "the team showed that about 17 teragrams per year of the increase is due to fossil fuels, another 12 is from wetlands or rice farming, while fires are decreasing by about 4 teragrams per year," NASA said in a Jan. 2 press release. "The three numbers combine to 25 teragrams a year—the same as the observed increase."
"A fun thing about this study was combining all this different evidence to piece this puzzle together," lead scientist John Worden of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California said in a statement.
Shale Boom, Methane Boom
Less fun, unfortunately: the implications for the climate. Methane is a major greenhouse gas, capable of trapping 86 times as much heat as the same amount of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it hits the Earth's atmosphere. So relatively tiny amounts of methane in the air can pack a massive climate-changing punch.
"The sharp increase in methane emissions correlates closely with the U.S. fracking boom," said Jim Warren, executive director of the climate watchdog group NC WARN. "Leaking and venting of unburned gas—which is mostly methane—makes natural gas even worse for the climate than coal."
The new NASA study is not the first to call attention to the connection between oil and gas and methane leaks. A study in March last year found that natural gas power plants put out between 20 and 120 times more methane pollution than previously believed, due in part to accidental leaks and in part to deliberate "venting" by companies. And as far back as 2011, researchers from Cornell University warned that switching over from coal to gas could be a grave mistake where climate change is concerned.
The NASA study may help settle the science on the oil and gas industry's role in rising methane emissions.
To conduct their research, the scientists examined the methane molecules linked to different sources, focusing on carbon isotopes in the molecules, which helped them match the methane to different sources. Methane molecules rising from wetlands and farms have a relatively small concentration of heavy carbon isotopes, oil and gas-linked methane higher amounts, and methane from fires the most heavy carbon. The scientists also cross-checked their findings by looking at other associated gases, like ethane and carbon monoxide—and the numbers all fell into place.
It turns out that fires worldwide burned up roughly 12 percent less acreage during 2007 to 2014, compared to the prior roughly half-dozen years—but the amount of methane from those fires fell more sharply, plunging nearly twice as fast, measurements from NASA's Terra and Aura satellites revealed.
"There's been a ping-pong game of explanations going back and forth about what might explain this," Penn State University atmospheric scientist Ken Davis told Mashable. "It's a complicated puzzle with a lot of parts, but [the study's conclusions] do seem plausible and likely."
That 2006-2014 lull in fires may be part of a larger trend. Historically, "burning during the past century has been lower than at any time in the past 2000 years," one 2016 study points out, due in large part to the spread of fire suppression techniques.
But don't expect the lower methane emissions from less burning worldwide to last forever. One of the impacts of climate change is to make large wildfires more likely, the Union of Concerned Scientists points out.
"Wildfire seasons (seasons with higher wildfire potential) in the United States are projected to lengthen, with the southwest's season of fire potential lengthening from seven months to all year long," the group said. "Additionally, wildfires themselves are likely to be more severe."
In the meantime, even while fires declined worldwide, methane emissions overall have continued to rise sharply—and, according to NASA's latest research, it turns out pollution linked to the oil and gas industry is responsible for the biggest chunk of that growing problem.
Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.
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Global Banks, Led by JPMorgan Chase, Invested $1.9 Trillion in Fossil Fuels Since Paris Climate Pact
By Sharon Kelly
A report published Wednesday names the banks that have played the biggest recent role in funding fossil fuel projects, finding that since 2016, immediately following the Paris agreement's adoption, 33 global banks have poured $1.9 trillion into financing climate-changing projects worldwide.
By Patti Lynn
2018 was a groundbreaking year in the public conversation about climate change. Last February, The New York Times reported that a record percentage of Americans now believe that climate change is caused by humans, and there was a 20 percentage point rise in "the number of Americans who say they worry 'a great deal' about climate change."
England faces an "existential threat" if it does not change how it manages its water, the head of the country's Environment Agency warned Tuesday.
By Jessica Corbett
A new analysis revealed Tuesday that over the past two decades heat records across the U.S. have been broken twice as often as cold ones—underscoring experts' warnings about the increasingly dangerous consequences of failing to dramatically curb planet-warming emissions.
By Madison Dapcevich
Ask any resident of San Francisco about the waterfront parrots, and they will surely tell you a story of red-faced conures squawking or dive-bombing between building peaks. Ask a team of researchers from the University of Georgia, however, and they will tell you of a mysterious string of neurological poisonings impacting the naturalized flock for decades.
The initial cause of the fire was not yet known, but it has been driven by the strong wind and jumped the North Santiam River, The Salem Statesman Journal reported. As of Tuesday night, it threatened around 35 homes and 30 buildings, and was 20 percent contained.
The unanimous verdict was announced Tuesday in San Francisco in the first federal case to be brought against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, alleging that repeated use of the company's glyphosate-containing weedkiller caused the plaintiff's cancer. Seventy-year-old Edwin Hardeman of Santa Rosa, California said he used Roundup for almost 30 years on his properties before developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."
Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.
"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."
Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.
However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.
"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.
Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.
Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.
"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.
Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.