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Lies, Damned Lies & Methane
What would Mark Twain think about today’s debate over methane being a significant driver of catastrophic man-caused global warming? We can only guess, but it seems likely he would a skeptic.
As Twain once said, “There are three kinds of Lies: Lies, damned lies and statistics.”
Twain actually borrowed the concept from a British politician, but what both of them were saying was that numbers can be a powerful tool of deception.
We see it every day in such things as the unemployment rate that doesn’t count the millions of people who’ve given up looking for work and the national debt that doesn’t account for trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities.
These kinds of deceptive numbers are found in countless other places as well—especially when it comes to energy and the environment.
For example, environmental activist groups are now sounding the alarm about methane being a powerful driver of climate change. Their argument is that in the production and transport of natural gas some unburned methane inevitably leaks into the atmosphere and when it does it’s global warming potential… or GWP… is far greater than carbon dioxide. They claim methane’s GWP is a whopping 84 times greater than CO2. Eight-four times the impact! That’s a pretty big and scary number. But where does this statistic come from and should it be believed?
In its greenhouse gas inventory, the Environmental Protection Agency uses a GWP for methane of 25 times that of CO2. So how does the Environmental Defense Fund come up with a GWP more than three times that amount? Well…that’s where Mark Twain’s caution about deceptive numbers comes in.
In truth, once methane is released into the atmosphere, it immediately begins to disintegrate, lowering its Global Warming Potential. About 12 years later the methane has completely broken down into other elements… dramatically reducing its GWP.
In order to make methane sound a lot more threatening, EDF and other activist groups significantly shorten the time frame of its impact, which subsequently raises the GWP. You’ve heard of “sleight of hand”. This is sleight of scale.
It should also be noted that even after taking into account it’s GWP of 25, methane only contributes 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the US and less than one-third of those emissions (31%) come from natural gas and petroleum systems.
Here’s the more interesting story when it comes to methane. In the past 25 years the United States has increased natural gas production by 55 percent. And while all that growth in production has been going on, methane emissions have been driven down by 16 percent because oil and gas companies have become a lot more proficient in finding and stopping leaks. The trend lines indicate the industry will continue to produce ever increasing amounts of gas for heating, cooking, industrial development, agriculture, and product manufacturing while reducing the amount of methane lost.
It’s no coincidence that the wealthy people funding the Environmental Defense Fund and other activist groups are heavily invested in wind and solar power. Their not-so-subtle end game is to drive up the cost of natural gas production through expensive regulations, thereby making solar and wind power more competitive.
That’s why EDF alone spent $136 million dollars in 2014 trying to influence public opinion. More importantly, the activists are trying to pressure lawmakers to create ever more costly regulations on how natural gas is produced and sent to the consumer. That increased cost is passed onto you in virtually everything you purchase and everything you do.
Now…there is also some irony here. If the goal of eco-activist groups is really to lower the threat of global warming they would not be trying to drive up the cost of natural gas. As the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made clear, “[T]he rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal-drilling technologies, which has increased and diversified the gas supply… is an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.”
In other words…more natural gas production has translated into a reduced percentage of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.
Mark Twain warned us that we should be highly skeptical when numbers are being thrown around. He was right.
The EPA states that methane remains in the atmosphere for 12 years before breaking down into other elements. Click on Methane Tab
The EPA documents that the oil and gas industry has reduced methane emissions by 46% over the past 25 years. View Source
The EPA’s explanation of greenhouse gases and global warming potential (updated) View Source
The Environmental Defense Fund erroneously claims methane’s GWP is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. EDF does state (in much smaller print) that the claimed 84 GWP statistic is “in the short term,” which is a vague admission that the statistic is intentionally inflated. View Source
In the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report the organization credits hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling with reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. View Source
For the truly ambitious, lots of data from the EPA on greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sinks View Source
Here’s a brain-strain piece from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Researchers at NOAA say recent surveys show that fossil fuel development around the world are up. However, their findings confirm other work by NOAA scientists that conclude fossil fuel facilities are not directly responsible for the increased rate of methane emissions. NOAA credits the oil/gas industry with improving industry practices that have reduced leaks from facilities from about 8 percent of production to about 2 percent over the past 30 years. View Source
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