The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
New Study Brings Some Grim Methane News

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America’s methane emissions may be 1.5 times larger than the EPA’s current estimate, according to a new study. Researchers from eight different institutions, including Harvard University, arrived at that conclusion using a top-down methodology.

Rather than measuring emissions from representative samples of known sources of methane—like livestock and oil and gas drilling—the authors analyzed air samples (quite literally a top-down approach). They found that America’s total methane emissions are significantly higher than the bottom-up approach had suggested, and that the south central United States is emitting more than double the methane previously believed.

The top-down method is useful insofar as it shows that our understanding of our cumulative methane emissions may be incomplete. But unlike the bottom-up approach, researchers have to make inferences to identify the specific causes of this increase. Harvard has more:

NOAA and the U.S. Department of Energy collect observations of methane and other gases from the tops of telecommunications towers, typically about as tall as the Empire State Building, and during research flights. The team combined this data with meteorological models of the temperatures, winds, and movement of air masses from the same time period, and then used a statistical method known as geostatistical inverse modeling to essentially run the model backward and determine the methane’s origin.

The team also compared these results with regional economic and demographic data, as well as other information that provided clues to the sources—for example, data on human populations, livestock populations, electricity production from power plants, oil and natural gas production, production from oil refineries, rice production, and coal production. In addition, they drew correlations between methane levels and other gases that were observed at the time. For example, a high correlation between levels of methane and propane in the South Central region suggests a significant role for fossil fuels there.

This is where it gets tricky. Some could look at this study and conclude that oil and gas drilling is emitting a lot more methane than we thought it was, simply because there’s a lot of drilling going on in a part of the country that’s emitting significantly more methane. But there’s plenty of agricultural sources of methane in the south central US as well, making it difficult to pinpoint which source is responsible for what increase.

Ideally, a top-down approach like this one complements a bottom-up one; this study suggests that America’s big picture methane emissions are greater, but bottom-up approaches are our best bet for understanding why. The EPA has already announced that it’s reviewing this latest study, and we’ll be watching to see what the rest of the academic community has to say about it as well.

But this points most of all to the degree of uncertainty that remains about some of the most basic facts about human impact on the climate. Sweeping policy changes based on such shaky scientific ground are going to be as politically toxic as they are unworkable.

[Oil rig image courtesy of Shutterstock]

Published on November 26, 2013 5:30 pm
  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Methane is a common waste by product of bacterial digestion, in other words “Farts”. I suppose we could hold lit matches up to their little butts, and so flare the methane off. We would also have to do this to every animal, and methane also seeps up out of the ground and water from where ever life has lived in the past (everywhere), so we would have to basically lite up and flare off the entire Earth’s farts. ;-)

  • Corlyss

    More bogus science that threatens not only fracking but meat production in America.

  • Andrew Allison

    Interesting, is is not, that as evidence (namely the cessation of warming in 1997) mounts that the impact of atmospheric CO2 on global temperature has been grossly exaggerated new, improved, sources of man’s inhumanity keep appearing? Perhaps we should keep in mind the Google mantra: In God We Trust, all others bring data.

  • cubanbob

    And why is this a problem?

    • Corlyss

      It wouldn’t be in a world of scientifically literate voters who didn’t fall for every trendy fad in foods. Methane is another bogus excuse for the UN to batter wealth nations about meat production. The UN wants to stamp it out before the 3rd-5th world find themselves rich enough to start growing meat themselves a la Latin America. Meat production endangers forests, often for painfully meager results because a lot of land that was just dandy for growing trees ain’t so dandy for growing crops and beef.

  • lukelea

    Correlation is not causation. Perhaps there is something about the geology of the South Central US and a lot of methane is seeping out of the ground.

    Anyway, what does it say about our climate modelers who have been blaming everything on CO2 emissions when not only are temperatures not going up the way they predicted but suddenly here is another well-known greenhouse gas that could be contributing to the trend?

    It means that climatology is a very young science and we don’t know very much.

  • BobSykes

    Listen up! Variations in the Sun’s output and the Earth’s orbital position drive climate. Atmospheric levels of methane and carbon dioxide follow (not lead) sun-induced temperature fluctuations. The key is that a warmer ocean released gasses and a cooler one absorbs gases.

    The Vostok cores that Al Gore used showed that large scale variations in temperature lead large scale variations in carbon dioxide by 400 to 800 years. Even the small scale variations we now see have temperature leading carbon dioxide.

    A significant number of climatologists are engaging in criminal and scientific fraud. They succeed because we are in a Lysenkoist era. Politicians use bogus science to advance their power schemes (a la Stalin), and corrupt scientists get rich and famous.