Obama’s Climate Plan is Leaking Methane

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By Nick Cunningham, a Washington DC-based writer on energy and environmental issues. You can follow him on twitter at @nickcunningham1. Originally published at OilPrice

The Environmental Protection Agency’s new regulations aimed at reducing carbon emissions by 30 percent will no doubt lead to a cleaner economy. But the road there will be paved with methane.

By requiring reductions in the energy intensity per megawatt-hour of electricity generation, utilities will have the ability to choose from an array of options for how to meet the targets.

Energy efficiency will likely be the first choice. Renewable energy will certainly play a big part, as well.

But one of the major ways utilities will comply with EPA rules is by fuel switching from coal to natural gas. By the EPA’s own estimate, coal generation will decline by 20 percent to 22 percent by 2020. That will create an opening for natural gas, which could rise by up to 45 percent, jumping from 22 billion cubic feet per day to 32 bcf/d.

The Obama administration has bet its climate legacy on this trend, which was already underway before the EPA regulations. This is why the administration chose 2005 as a baseline, when emissions were near a peak. 2005 predated the shale gas revolution, which led to significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions as cheap natural gas displaced coal. By 2013, the U.S. had already achieved about a 10 percent reduction in emissions since 2005 – meaning we are already well on our way to the 2030 goal.


Since natural gas burns much cleaner than coal, producing about half as much carbon dioxide, making the switch from coal to gas can go a long way to achieving the rest of the remaining reductions, the administration seems to be thinking.

The big problem is that we don’t know what’s happening with methane emissions. Natural gas, which is essentially methane (CH4), may burn cleaner than coal, but what happens when it isn’t burned? As a greenhouse gas, methane emitted into the atmosphere is more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.

Natural gas production leaks methane along its entire supply chain – from drilling to storing, processing to distributing. The EPA estimates that methane emissions have actually declined over the past 20 years as technology has improved. And this needs to be true for the EPA’s assumptions to work out with its climate plan.

The problem is that many scientists dispute those claims. Robert Howarth of Cornell University believes that methane leakage could be much higher than the government says, which would mean pushing utilities to switch from coal to natural gas may not be constructive. He has conducted studies that conclude methane leakage far exceeds EPA estimates. “Converting to natural gas plants, which is what this latest rule is likely to do, will actually aggravate climate change, not make things better,” Howarth told Bloomberg News. “It’s well enough established to suggest the EPA is on the wrong side of the science.”

The natural gas industry has aggressively pushed back against Howarth’s findings, pointing to other studies that show lower methane leakage. But the problem is that the science just isn’t all there yet – we don’t know exactly how much methane is leaking. Nevertheless, the Obama administration is ploughing forward.

In its regulatory analysis for the new carbon rule, the EPA recognized the methane problem, but has punted on the issue for now. “The EPA is aware that other GHGs such as nitrous oxide (N2O) (and to a lesser extent, methane [CH4]) may be emitted from fossil-fuel-fired EGUs…The EPA is not proposing separate N2O or CH4 guidelines or an equivalent CO2 emission limit because of a lack of available data for these affected sources,” the report said.

Natural gas may still have a climate benefit over coal. And even if it doesn’t right now, methane leakage could turn out to be a very fixable problem, as engineers figure out how to plug the leaks in the supply chain. But for now, President Barack Obama’s climate plan hinges on this uncertainty.

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  1. kimsarah

    Bait-and-switch Barack — reduce greenhouse gas fossile fuel emissions (which is required anyway by the Clean Air Act), then slip the fracking industry a free pass. Sure gas is cleaner to burn than coal. But extracting it via fracking is probably just as dangerous, with new reports coming out all the time of water and air pollution caused by fracking (and its secret chemical recipe), not to mention earthquakes. No politician or oligarch wants to live next to a fracking site.
    Nonetheless, big money always wins with Barry and his hot-air buddies around him.

    1. Dirk77

      Will it be the answer to climate change as ACA is to healthcare? Why solve a problem when you can create a tortured monstrosity that if alive would beg for a quick end? Stay tuned.

  2. John

    Like all Obama policies he takes the Aloha approach — we’ll try to get there, but in a slow, wait and see kind of way so Wall Street can come around to making money off the deal. No sense of urgency — and no leadership.

    WH messaging is carefully choreographed so as to obfuscate hidden agendas. Climate change should not be one of them. Then again, he’s got to show his faux progressive agenda every so often. SuckersPeople still lap it up.

  3. Billy

    Finally some one is pointing out that methane releases are a real issue and contribute to global warming.
    Why does the natural gas industry tolerate leaks ? Most local gas utilities are regulated monopolies which operate on a cost plus basis – in other words it pays to leak. There is a good chance that if the leaks were repaired that gas prices would drop.
    And this is why landfill gas and feedlot gas are both mostly ignored. These fuel sources are seen as competition to the regulated monopolies.
    Controlling methane emissions would be a good first step to reduce global warming. and we have a good idea of where the sources are.

    1. TheCatSaid

      Thanks for pointing out that most regulated monopolies operate on a cost-plus basis.

      How would one go about creating change in that approach, so that we can get rid of the financial incentive created by methane leakage?

      1. craazyboy

        The EPA would have to monitor it, same as fracking water, same as they do SO2 output of all the old coal plants that could be closed (and also are exempted from 1980s clean air regs) if NG gas power plants could be ramped up.

        Building new NG plants is half the cost and half the construction time as a coal plant. And half the CO2 output.

        Not a bad stop gap solution, if the leakage and fracking wastewater issues can be managed.

        The alternatives aren’t quite ready for prime time yet.

        But that’s just the supply side. Conservation and reducing waste have to play a big part too.

  4. Thor's Hammer

    If you really want to devise a system for fueling private cars and trucks that is even more harmful than the present gas and diesel one, just convert to natural gas. Every refueling operation becomes a leak as the air is bled out of the connecting lines.

    re the Obama Plan: — Entirely consistent with his “progressive” policies. By choosing the 2005 baseline “success” is guaranteed without lifting a finger or endangering the profit chain of his masters. With any luck demand will have fallen further by 2030 as the economy collapses back into a pure feudal state, and the goals will be automatically met. If not, who that really matters gives a damn?

  5. James Levy

    American elites have been so rich, and so insulated by her oceans and her vast natural resources, for so long that they can no longer imagine consequences. Consequences are for the Iraqis, or the blacks in Detroit, or the poor whites in Appalachia. Anyone who is really important in America does not face consequences for their actions. The only exceptions are if you piss off the rest of the elite, or on those rare occasions when one of them has to be thrown to the mob as a scapegoat. I’m sure some of the people at the top understand, intellectually, that we are screwed, that climate change and peak conventional oil are synergistically leading to disaster, but I think even those who are not stupid or self-deluding can’t really believe what is going to happen is going to happen. They have no experience of it. They have no conscious memories of bread lines and Pearl Harbor, and almost all of them now were born after those events. All they’ve know is that they can swing their dicks around and get what they want and intimidate whom they please and “create their own reality.” That is why we are headed over the falls.

    1. susan the other

      Funny that nobody is so tacky as to suggest that human methane might be reduced. All of us old methane producers will die off in large numbers in the next 20 years (in time for the 2030 guidelines). Just think of the subtle, even polite, hidden factors in those guidelines. 7 billion methane generators minus 3 billion methane generators is a huge reduction. Go Boomers!

      1. ewmayer

        I’m feeling gassy – anybody got a match?

        [CAUTION: Professional flatulator on closed road course. Do not try this yourself. Flaring-off of personal waste gases in an uncontrolled environment may start fires and cause injury to delicate tissues. Leave such activities to professional flamewarriors™.]

  6. jfleni

    RE: Obama’s Climate Plan is Leaking Methane

    The science of methane release to the atmosphere is really quite clear:

    1. Recause of sunlight and bacteria and chemical instability, all methane turns info CO2 in the atmosphere fairly quickly; its high greenhouse potential is a only a short term effect, usually either ignored and/or misunderstood.

    2. Flaring gas and leaking gas just creates more CO2, adding to climate change, without any benefit at all — no heat, fuel, electricity, nothing! Such useless waste is actually a positive feedback effect making climate change even worse.

    3. Barry (and the rest of the DogPatch-DC posse) of course has no understanding of such things. Only CARBON reduction and elimination will really solve the problem; everything else comes from the chorus of CARBON shills (like the Poison-Dwarf-Bros) who want to yell “GIMME” for as long as possible.

    1. TheCatSaid

      “all methane turns info CO2 in the atmosphere fairly quickly; its high greenhouse potential is a only a short term effect”

      This is misleading.
      Many sources say the lifetime of methane in the atmosphere is 12 years. For example, see http://www.ourenergypolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/chapter02.pdf

      Since methane is also said to be between 20 to 100 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, methane’s impact deserves to be taken more seriously than you imply. Even if methane lasts just a few years in the atmosphere, its ability to contribute to an irreversible global warming feedback loop should be a cause for concern and action.

      1. gepay

        CO2 is not a pollutant and thinking it is will cause harm – one example – London’s Nitrogen Dioxide Pollution Worse Than Beijing’s
        “Successive governments knew more than 10 years ago that diesel was producing all these harmful pollutants, but they myopically plowed on with their CO2 agenda,” said Simon Birkett, founder of Clean Air in London, a nonprofit group. “It’s been a catastrophe for air pollution, and that’s not too strong a word. It’s a public-health catastrophe.”
        Wrong assumptions lead to bad results no matter how good the intentions – getting us off our addiction to fossil fuels and their real pollution effects – the wrong assumption – still unproven no matter how many phony consensus surveys there are – that man made CO2 is the main driver of climate change in our time – false just on the face of it as we don’t even know for sure why drastic climate change like the ice ages or the ending of the ice age or the Younger Dryas or even the Little Ice Age or the Medieval Warming or the Roman Era warming happened.
        The warming in the 80s and 90s was no more than normal variation driven by still not quantisized natural variation and climate feedback processes – the climate modelers still can’t accurately model the feedback process of water vapor (the biggest and most important of the socalled greenhouse gases) and clouds or aerosols – leaving aside the question of what the Sun’s contribution is over time – with somewhat accurate measurements only for a few decades.
        On the weather level we don’t even know enough about jet streams to be able to predict what they will do from season to season.

        1. Crazy Horse

          Looks like the Cock Brothers are paying trolls by the word now. Good job getting all the official talking points into one paragraph. You deserve a bonus!

          1. James Levy

            Let’s be real: look at Mars; look at Venus. They are warmer than they should be because of the C02 content in their atmospheres. If we keep pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it is going to have an effect. Or was the greenhouse effect a fraud dreamed up by scientists over 50 years ago to explain why Venus is so hot knowing that one day they could use said greenhouse effect idea to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes but crackerjacks like you? And what about ocean acidification? Is that a figment of the scientist’s imaginations, too? You make me sick.

        2. ChrisPacific

          For someone who complains so much about unproven assertions, you sure make a lot of them yourself.

  7. mellon

    BIG PROBLEM- Obama’s big fracking + drilling EXPANSION – which will be irreversible because its covered by ISDS (part of a TTIP export deal!) **will probably dramatically increase the cost of natural gas to Americans!** (a growing number of whom cannot afford it now)


    Prices are currently protected by legal limits on exporting natural gas. That will change to a situation where the US will be REQUIRED to export natural gas or pay huge compensation.

    That gas will not just go to Europe, it will go to the HIGHEST BIDDER, probably much of it will go to Asia.

    So almost everything they are saying is intentional and material misrepresentation.

      1. TheCatSaid

        Yes. A small example–on Bougainville (easternmost island in PNG), I saw a map showing how Bougainville Copper Limited / Rio Tinto had divided up the entire island into 5 gigantic copper mines. Their plan was that the native inhabitants would be relocated to Australia.
        (The single Panguna mine on Bougainville was so large the decision of the number of trucks of ore to be mined each day determined the global price of copper.)

        1. Podargus

          Indeed,Cat, and the Panguna mine has been closed for years because the locals sabotaged it. A prime example of effective local action.

  8. susan the other

    I think we are incapable of allocating energy globally. Not only does it require long, leaky pipelines and sketchy trade deals, it leaks. Literally. If energy were a local mandate, local to every community or coalition of communities, it could be handled much more instinctively and effectively. And no long, leaking pipes. The present and always unstated goal, international trade, is the biggest culprit.

  9. Deloss

    I love your blog, Yves, and am glad to be a subscriber, and only wish I could subscribe at a higher rate. So much for being nice.

    There is a fair amount of nonsense both in the post and the comments, and it is depressing.

    1. I haven’t read anywhere that the EPA said we had to use natural gas, which readers seem to equate with methane. We’ll leave that clause unexplained.

    2. Everything leaks. The oil we presently use tends to leak at every stage, as BP and Exxon have disastrously demonstrated. The gas you pump into your car leaks into the air, which is why there is now that big rubber ring around the pump nozzle.

    3. There are other fuels besides “natural gas.” My farm manager has a car that burns 85% ethanol, which in the Midwest, you can get from a special pump at the gas station. (The ethanol leaks at every inefficient connection, by the way.)
    The ethanol is made from corn, so it is a renewable resource. You can make biodiesel oil from soybeans. (Hell, you can even make a deal with the local Chinese restaurant to haul away their used cooking oil and burn it, after a little processing.) However since we need to eat as well as drive around, it may not work to convert all our crops to fuel. But you can also make ethanol from sugar cane and cornstalks. Species of algae also make ethanol.

    4. There are a lot of other technologies, like fuel cells, which may now make progress given the implied economic incentive. Fuel cells burn hydrogen, and the output is water. Scientists at MIT announced in 2011 they had produced a photosynthetic device that converts water and sunlight into hydrogen with 5% efficiency. Trees have about a 1% efficiency.

    But the reason I wrote this diatribe is that many of your readers seem content to cry out, “It’s all Obama’s fault,” as if they were members of the TP, not readers of NC. Obama is not the problem. The problem is global warming, caused mostly by burning carbon. Obama has taken the first step. It will take all our efforts to counter entrenched interests in their efforts to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases. All the oil companies will continue to shout, “There’s no such thing as global warming!” and “It’s not man-made!” and “There’s nothing we can do about it anyway!”

    Leave us not join them.

    1. Billy

      The point about methane leaks is that the sources are well established – leaks, landfills, feedlots, waste water treatment.
      Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2.

      So why not fix what we know and move on from there ?

    2. Vatch

      Regarding ethanol: I’m not sure it’s a very good fuel. It takes a lot of energy to grow the corn or sugar cane, and then to convert it into ethanol. I’m not qualified to judge what the energy returned on the energy invested (EROEI) for ethanol is, but this article suggests that the EROEI for ethanol is about 1.07. That is, we get 1.07 units of energy in return for an investment of 1.0 units of energy. Coal and petroleum could be used to produce the ethanol.


      Maybe someone with professional experience can comment on the value of ethanol as a fuel.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Ethanol is not a good fuel. The only type of ethanol that is a net plus when all the environmental impacts are considered (water usage, effect of taking land out of food production on agricultural prices) is Brazilian sugar-based ethanol. Corn ethanol subsidies are crazy and result in much higher food prices:


        And see this (from Jim Quinn, boldface mine):

        The United States is the major player in the world corn market providing more than 50% of the world’s corn supply. In excess of 20% of our corn crop had been exported to other countries, but the government ethanol mandates have reduced the amount that is available to export.

        This year, the US will harvest approximately 12.5 million bushels of corn. More than 42% will be used to feed livestock in the US, another 40% will be used to produce government mandated ethanol fuel, 2% will be used for food products, and 16% is exported to other countries. Ending stocks are down 963 million bushels from last year. The stocks-to-use ratio is projected at 5.5%, the lowest since 1995/96 when it dropped to 5.0%. As you can see in the chart below, poor developing countries are most dependent on imports of corn from the US. Food as a percentage of income for peasants in developing countries in Africa and Southeast Asia exceeds 50%. When the price of corn rises 75% in one year, poor people starve…The 107 million tons of grain that went to U.S. ethanol distilleries in 2009 was enough to feed 330 million people for one year at average world consumption levels…

        The amount of grain needed to fill the tank of an SUV with ethanol just once can feed one person for an entire year. The average income of the owners of the world’s 940 million automobiles is at least ten times larger than that of the world’s 2 billion hungriest people. In the competition between cars and hungry people for the world’s harvest, the car is destined to win. In March 2008, a report commissioned by the Coalition for Balanced Food and Fuel Policy estimated that the bio-fuels mandates passed by Congress cost the U.S. economy more than $100 billion from 2006 to 2009. The report declared that “The policy favoring ethanol and other bio-fuels over food uses of grains and other crops acts as a regressive tax on the poor.” A 2008 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D.) issued its report on bio-fuels that concluded: “Further development and expansion of the bio-fuels sector will contribute to higher food prices over the medium term and to food insecurity for the most vulnerable population groups in developing countries.” These forecasts are coming to fruition today.


        1. Crazy Horse

          Wrong! Ethanol is a great fuel for agribusiness.

          ps. Even in Brazil, over 70% (my recollection) of transport is fueled by oil & gasoline.

        2. Deloss

          You are absolutely right, Yves, about ethanol’s not being the best alternate fuel, and as I understand it, current production of ethanol itself requires petrochemicals to fire up the distillery, which is even worse.

          I am not a disinterested party, as you may have realized when you saw the words, “my farm manager.” It is in my financial interest to have ethanol used in gasoline. However you may recall that ethanol got into gasoline in the first place as a substitute for MTBE, which, when it leaks out, poisons the water supply. If the government wanted to stop subsidizing the use of ethanol as a gasoline additive and put the money into food stamps instead, I would not complain. I’d rejoice.

          But there are a LOT of substitute power sources besides methane, and corn or cellulose ethanol is only one. You can find conversion kits on the web for you to burn the restaurant frying fat in your diesel. Those guys at MIT really are working on artificial photosynthesis. There are wind turbines down the road from us.

          I will try not to be tedious about who’s more likely to protect food stamps, Paul Ryan or Barack Obama. As for exports, we have a big carry-over from last year, and everybody expects a big (corn) crop this year.

          As for methane leaks, Yves herself knows that if methane leaks were impossible to control, an apartment building in our town would blow up every couple of days, instead of once every few years.

          1. Deloss

            Sorry, that link doesn’t work. Just look up “Corn carry-over 2013,” and click on the result that contains the figure “164%.”

        3. optimader

          Ethanol is not a good fuel. The only type of ethanol that is a net plus when all the environmental impacts are considered (water usage, effect of taking land out of food production on agricultural prices) is Brazilian sugar-based ethanol

          POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels. Two innovative companies. One shared vision. What forces will shape the world to come? How can technology fuel the future, when the economy clings to ideas of the past? Where is the next advancement in renewable, yet accessible energy coming from? Cellulosic bio-ethanol — renewable fuel made from agricultural residue — can provide the answer to many of these questions. And with the goal of making cellulosic bio-ethanol a viable commercial reality, two innovative companies have come together to form one visionary partnership: Introducing POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels. Based in the United States, POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels LLC will have its first commercial demonstration plant co-located within POET’s Emmetsburg, Iowa biorefinery, with the goal of globally licensing an integrated technology package for the conversion of corn crop residue to cellulosic bio-ethanol. – See more at: http://www.poetdsm.com/#sthash.45nwqVBK.dpuf

  10. splashoil

    It’s off the radar if you are not in the path of progress, but Obama has vastly accelerated the coal mining, cheap leases, and greasing the rails and shipping lanes for coal exports. Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Peabody Coal have to market their coal from Obama’s Powder River cheap leases. Send it out of the country, burn it there and the effect is the same. 22 coal trains/day with 100+ cars each are scheduled to run through the Pacific Northwest to various export terminals. That is in addition to undisclosed Bakken crude oil trains. (Proprietary Information say Railroads.) No deduction in the amount of coal to be burned under Obama’s energy plan, just where it will smolder.

  11. MRW

    The only way any greenhouse gas–water vapor, CO2, methane, ozone, etc–causes warming is through interacting with different wavelengths of the infrared. They do this at specific temperatures that are always stated in Kelvin, and interact in different ways. Where they perform this interaction–absorb a photon of light and vibrate–is known as their (infrared) absorption band. The more infrared is absorbed the warmer the atmosphere becomes. These temperatures are so specific in any discussion of the infrared that infrared astronomers/engineers prefer to place their satellites on the highest peaks in Antarctica where water vapor is lowest in order to see out into space.

    The earth radiates heat from the surface–known as Outgoing Longwave Radiation (OLR)–per Dr. Trenberths’ 2009 energy balance chart. The bands that are responsible for back radiation in the infrared related to earth’s surface temperature are between 9 microns and 13 microns. These temperatures are 220K to 320 K, which is -64F to 116F. Water vapour is a weak absorber of infrared radiation where the earth’s thermal radiation is greatest in this 9 to 13 micron band (also known as the N-band), and the greatest effect of this absorption is in the tropics where the circumference of the earth is the widest, and the sun is the hottest. Water vapor has latent heat in these bands, but it does not saturate. (It saturates at 3 microns, 5-7um, and beyond 12um.)

    CO2 does not absorb in the N-band. It absorbs at 14 and 15 microns—sorta’ curves from 12.5 to 18–which is 207K and 193K (-87F, -112F), respectively. Most of this is in the troposphere, and even though it is 6X more effective an absorber than H2O, it only contributes about 5-7% to the back radiated heat at the upper end of the N-band (12.5/13 microns); water vapor does the motherlode of the work.

    Methane absorbs infrared specifically at 3.4 microns, and in the 7-range: 7.4 microns, 7.58 microns, and 7.87 microns, because I just looked it up. This is how specific the absorption bands are.

    Those micron temperatures are 852K, 392K, 382K, and 368K, respectively. The Fahrenheit equivalents are 1073F, 246F, 228F, and 203F.

    CH4 (Methane) is 20X more effective an absorber than CO2, but only in the 3 micron and 7 micron bands! Which happens to be bands where water vapor is also absorbing the strongest, completely masking the effect of methane. Methane would have to increase by 100X to come close to matching the effect of water vapor.

    It’s helpful to start talking to infrared astronomers, better yet an infrared engineer who produces satellite for NASA—which I did, because they have to get it right or no space travel, no knowledge of the cosmos, no looking at Mars–and get the physics, something that climate ‘scientists’ with only environmental training in a social science or political department never get. The maths involved are something to behold.

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