Innovative solutions will be necessary to reduce methane emissions, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases, experts say

Carbon dioxide isn't the only culprit responsible for global warming.

March 19, 2024, 11:28 AM

The U.S. is emitting more methane from oil and gas production than previously thought – and it's causing billions of dollars in environmental damage per year, according researchers.

The majority of methane emissions around the world originate from landfills, agriculture and farming, and from coal mining, but new research is showing that scientists and the federal government have severely underestimated how much of the powerful greenhouse gas is being emitted through the processing of fossil fuels in the U.S., according to a study published Wednesday in Nature.

Oil and gas production in six regions of the U.S. – including the Permian Basin spanning parts of Texas and New Mexico; the San Joaquin Valley in Central California; the Denver-Julesburg Basin in eastern Colorado; the Uinta basin in Utah; the Fort Worth Basin in Texas; and the Appalachian region in Pennsylvania -- may be emitting an average of 2.95% of its own fossil fuel production into the atmosphere as methane. That's three times the estimate previously made by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Piles of coal sit in front of Pacificorp's coal-fired power plant in Castle Dale, UT, Oct. 9, 2017.
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The regions observed may have contributed an estimated 6.2 million tons per year of methane emissions, causing about $9.3 billion a year in environmental damage, according to the study.

The rates of emission vary widely by sample area, with methane emissions ranging from 0.75% in a high-productivity area of Pennsylvania in 2021, to 9.63% in a high-productivity area in New Mexico between 2018 and 2020, the researchers found.

The survey areas only account for 52% of U.S. onshore oil production and 29% of U.S. gas production, meaning the amount of methane emitted from U.S. oil and gas production is much higher than what was observed for the study, Evan Sherwin, an energy policy analyst who conducted the research with Stanford University, told ABC News.

A wide array of technologies exist today that allow scientists to detect methane emissions more accurately.

Cattle stand in their pasture in rural Lamadera, NM, Oct 18, 2018.
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The study's researchers gathered data by combining aerial infrared spectroscopy from the six regions – taken by flying planes over huge areas and reflecting sunlight to rapidly detect the largest emissions – with simulated field measurements from potential sources of methane emissions. Limitations in technology previously prevented an accurate assessment of these emissions, the authors said.

"Once we started to get data from both of these systems, we started seeing emissions much larger than we had really ever seen in the past," Sherwin said, adding that this is the largest study of the sort to ever be conducted, incorporating more than one million measurements at oil and natural gas production sites.

Companies and governments are also using specialized satellites and ground-based systems drones – technologies that did not exist 10 years ago – to understand how much methane is being emitted, and to pinpoint those emissions and fix them.

Most of the methane emissions are coming from a select few sites, Sherwin said. The study found that about one-tenth of one percent of the 1,000 surveyed sites were responsible for more than half of the total recorded methane emissions.

"You can actually see hotspots over parts of the Dakotas and West Texas, and it's a very considerable amount," Frank Mitloehner, an air quality specialist at the University of California, Davis, told ABC News.

This undated photo shows bulldozers at a landfill in Los Angeles, CA.
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The most common source of the methane leaks were unlit flares, Sherwin said. Flaring is the process of burning natural gas that escapes from oil and gas wells, with the intent of combusting methane to minimize emissions.

In areas focused on producing oil, oftentimes the methane gas will leak out of the ground, Sherwin said. It also can get mixed in with the oil as it is siphoned out of the liquid storage tanks, he said.

In some cases, the methane gas can be sold, but it's difficult to do if there is not an existing pipeline to accommodate it, Sherwin said.

The new study sheds light on the amount of waste of a non-renewable natural resource, Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, told ABC News.

"If you vent or flare it into the atmosphere, you are losing the economic value," he said. "...If you capture that gas, you can actually use it and sell it as energy rather than just simply waste it."

An oil drill is viewed near a construction site for homes and office buildings in Midland, TX, Feb. 5, 2015.
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Methane is one of the most concerning greenhouse gases but it's lesser-known, since much of the previous research and media coverage has focused on carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas produced by the extraction of fossil fuels, the experts said.

Dubbed a "super pollutant" by the EPA that's responsible for about a third of current anthropogenic global warming, methane has a global warming potential about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to the agency.

There are several solutions being utilized around the world to curb methane emissions across sectors, the experts said.

Norway, the largest producer of oil and gas for most of the European Union, has put tight restrictions on venting and flaring of methane, combining regulations with taxes and methane loss, Rabe said. Other nations, like Canada and Saudi Arabia, are moving in that direction as well, he said.

In agriculture, there is ongoing work to engineer the microbiome of cattle or to change their feed in order to reduce the emissions they produce from their digestion, Mitloehner said.

Large dairy farms in California have also started putting covers over manure storage to prevent the gas from being released into the atmosphere, Mitloehner said.

New farming techniques are also being developed for a number of different crops, such as rice, which is typically grown in flooded paddy fields that are one of the major emitters of methane, Sherwin said.

Pumpjacks operate to extract oil near Midland, TX, Jan. 29, 2022.
Matthew Busch/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Another of the things that need to be looked at closely is how waste is disposed of, since landfills – and the food waste that gets dumped there – are a major source of methane emissions, Rabe said. Though research is ongoing, progress on finding ways to reduce methane emissions from landfills has been slow, he added.

There are also efforts to determine ways to remove methane directly from the atmosphere, Sherwin said.

Humans aren't responsible for all harmful methane emissions – there are natural sources, such as wetlands – but solutions need to be found to mitigate those emissions as well, the experts said.

"The atmosphere doesn't care who's responsible for emissions," Sherwin said.

Large methane emissions events around the world detected by satellites grew 50% in 2023 compared to 2022, according to the International Energy Agency's 2024 Global Methane Tracker, released last week. More than five million metric tons were spotted in major fossil fuel leaks during the survey period, the report found.

Overall, about 30% of the global warming that has already occurred is directly attributable to methane emissions from all of its sources, Rabe said.

Workers extracting oil from oil wells in the Permian Basin in Midland, TX, May 3, 2018.
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During the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai In December, the U.S. government and the oil industry announced plans to drastically reduce methane emissions.

The Oil and Gas Decarbonization Compact requires 50 major oil and gas companies to reduce their methane emissions by about 80% to 90% within the next five years. Additionally, under the inflation Reduction Act, the U.S. will develop an entirely updated measurement system for the reporting and gathering of methane data, and will use that to impose a financial penalty on low-performing oil and gas production where methane releases are high, Rabe said.

Current estimation of methane loss likely represents a severe underestimation of the actual releases, Rabe said. But since methane has a short half-life, meaning it doesn't linger in the atmosphere for nearly as long as CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, putting more effort into mitigating methane emissions will likely see faster results than focusing on CO2, Jiayu Li, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Miami, told ABC News.

More research will be needed in the future to pinpoint and prevent the leaks – especially throughout the rest of the world, Sherwin said.

"We need to have baselines we need to be able to track emissions over time," Sherwin said.

Last December, the Biden administration also instituted finalized standards to slash methane and other harmful air pollutants from the oil and natural gas industry, aiming to prevent an estimated 58 million tons of methane emissions from 2024 to 2038 – the equivalent of 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide and nearly as much as all the carbon dioxide emitted by the power sector in 2021.