Methane Mystery Solved: The Cows Did It


Methane Mystery Solved: The Cows Did It

One of the favorite myths of the “keep it in the ground” opponents of natural gas has been debunked by a new scientific study on methane emissions. Methane is the primary component of clean-burning natural gas that is used in increasing amounts for generating electricity.

U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide from the power sector have steadily declined back to early 1990s levels, thanks to the increased use of clean-burning natural gas for electricity generation.  Yet, opponents have tried to convince the public that these lower emission levels have been more than offset by what they claim are increased “fugitive” emissions of methane gas associated with the natural gas revolution and the pipeline operations necessary to transport the fuel.

The new study sets the record, and the science, straight:  the cows did it. The study released last week in the Carbon Balance and Management Journal, entitled “Revised methane emissions factors and spatially distributed annual carbon fluxes for global livestock”, concludes that “livestock methane emissions…account for a significant part of the increase in annual methane emissions since 2007.”

The study was conducted by scientists with the Joint Global Change Research Institute, an organization operated by the University of Maryland and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The study’s authors found that “livestock methane emissions, while not the dominant overall source of global methane emissions, may be a major contributor to the observed annual emissions increases over the 2000s to 2010s”.

In fact, according to EPA data, fossil fuel production and use contributed less than one-third of U.S. methane emissions in 2015, compared to agriculture and landfills which contributed over half. EPA also reports that U.S. methane emissions from energy operations declined 24% from 1990 to 2015, even though natural gas production grew 55% over the same period. In contrast, methane emissions from agriculture increased over 12% during the same 25-year timeframe.

The study’s authors should get ready for what will surely come next: the full weight of the “Chicken Little” wing of the climate science community will descend on the study and its authors in an attempt to discredit their conclusions while disparaging the authors’ scientific credentials. They believe that any scientific research that debunks the “settled science” narratives of natural gas opponents, however carefully researched and thoroughly reviewed, must be shouted down.

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