The Other Greenhouse Gas

How Methane Emissions Harm the Environment and the Economy

Steam and other emissions are seen coming from funnels at an oil refinery in Melbourne, July 2009.  Mick Tsikas / Courtesy Reuters

In April 2015, the Rhodium Group, a New York-based advisory firm, published a report on the importance of reducing global methane emissions. According to the report, some 3.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—primarly composed of methane—escaped into the atmosphere in 2012 from oil and gas operations. Methane leakage is bad for the economy and the environment—the former because the wasted gas translated into roughly $30 billion in lost revenue, the latter because methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first two decades after its release.

Rhodium’s report, Untapped Potential: Reducing Global Methane Emissions from Oil and Natural Gas Systems, finds that countries can eliminate methane leakage at little cost, simultaneously reducing emissions and monetizing economic waste. “Because methane is the primary component of natural gas,” according to the report, “recovering and using leaked methane can increase sales revenue. That can offset some, if not all, of the cost of leak detection and repair.” That finding has been confirmed by the Environmental Protection Agency and non-profit organizations such as the World Resources Institute.

The Rhodium report suggests that countries can commit to reducing methane leakage through their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs, the climate pledges that countries have agreed to make ahead of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year. When they were designed in 2013, INDCs were meant to encourage countries to take steps toward reducing greenhouse gasses without forcing them into more stringent agreements, which have historically failed. 

In the first two decades after its release, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

But the INDC model is plagued by weakness. For one, few believe that the pledges will result in enough actual action to keep global warming within the limits established by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted in 1992. In February of this year, Christiana Figueres, the United Nation’s top climate official, told reporters in Brussels that the INDCs “will not get us onto the 2°C

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