A little while back, I shared the good news that the so-called “clathrate gun” was apparently no longer a serious cause for concern. I remain happy about that, but unfortunately there are other big sources of methane – all tied to fossil fuel extraction – that are contributing to climate change in a major way.
More than 1,000 “super-emitter” sites gushed the potent greenhouse gas methane into the global atmosphere in 2022, the Guardian can reveal, mostly from oil and gas facilities. The worst single leak spewed the pollution at a rate equivalent to 67m running cars.
This is why the focus on individual lifestyle choices has always been a massive red herring, and why I focus more on systemic/societal change. I haven’t owned a car since late 2009, and any decrease in humanity’s emissions from that choice was more than wiped out by the methane coming from any one of those facilities. Do what you can on the individual level, but if we don’t chance society, that won’t end up mattering. That’s doubly true, because fossil fuel corporations fully intend to extract every drop they can, no matter the harm done to everyone else:
Separate data also reveals 55 “methane bombs” around the world – fossil fuel extraction sites where gas leaks alone from future production would release levels of methane equivalent to 30 years of all US greenhouse gas emissions.
I guarantee you that there are more than 55 places around the world where new extraction is planned, and from which a horrifying amount of methane will leak. These 55 are just the really exceptional ones. Regardless, these findings support the long-standing view that we need to act a lot faster than we have been. The upside is that eliminating or dramatically reducing these emissions should, technically, be pretty easy:
Methane emissions cause 25% of global heating today and there has been a “scary” surge since 2007, according to scientists. This acceleration may be the biggest threat to keeping below 1.5C of global heating and seriously risks triggering catastrophic climate tipping points, researchers say.
The two new datasets identify the sites most critical to preventing methane-driven disaster, as tackling leaks from fossil fuel sites is the fastest and cheapest way to slash methane emissions. Some leaks are deliberate, venting the unwanted gas released from underground while drilling for oil into the air, and some are accidental, from badly maintained or poorly regulated equipment.
Fast action would dramatically slow global heating as methane is short-lived in the atmosphere. An emissions cut of 45% by 2030, which the UN says is possible, would prevent 0.3C of temperature rise. Methane emissions therefore present both a grave threat to humanity, but also a golden opportunity to decisively act on the climate crisis.
“The current rise in methane looks very scary indeed,” said Prof Euan Nisbet, at Royal Holloway, University of London in the UK. “Methane acceleration is perhaps the largest factor challenging our Paris agreement goals. So removing the super-emitters is a no-brainer to slow the rise – you get a lot of bang for your buck.”
“Methane emissions are still far too high, especially as methane cuts are among the cheapest options to limit near-term global warming,” said Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency. “There is just no excuse.”
I believe the excuse is that solving these problems might slightly slow the rate at which fossil fuel executives keep getting richer. The world has been blessed with a great abundance of “low-hanging fruit” with regard to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and for the most part, those have been ignored. I full believe that this will also be ignored, unless there is real, scary pressure from the bottom.
It may be that as a movement rises, rooted in collective power, direct action, and the common good, the capitalists will begin making more dramatic changes in an effort to appease the masses, head off real change, and hold on to their power. I’ll celebrate those changes when they come, but given the past behavior of these people, I think it’s safe to say that they will not be enough. Not for dealing with the climate, and not for the goal of freedom, self-governance, and justice.
Methane leakage from the fossil fuel industry is not a new problem, and it’s already a crime against humanity that it hasn’t been dealt with. The longer this is allowed to continue, the more harm it does to all of us, and to future generations. They’ve shown that they will not voluntarily cease their campaign of destruction so they must be made to stop.
Edit: Someone on Mastodon pointed out that when methane reaches the end of its “life” in the atmosphere, it doesn’t just disappear – it largely turns into carbon dioxide, and keeps warming the earth that way.
Unfortunately, methane is a much more powerful UV reflector than is CO2, so it’s much more serious for Global Warming.
Also, discussions about methane leaks should be illustrated with false-color infrared video footage which demonstrates how much methane volume is polluting our atmosphere. These only became technically possible to video in the past decade.
And when methane decomposes, it doesn’t just go straight to CO2, but rather goes through a sequence of reactive volatile hydrocarbons, which do cause health issues for some people, so it’s a worse stage.