Here's an exciting development: scientists and policy-makers working tirelessly to solve the “climate crisis” have come up with a solution: generate more carbon dioxide! Who woulda thunk it? I know, I know, you're thinking that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the problem. That is so 2020 of you. The alarmists have concluded that methane is the bigger problem. How do you get rid of methane? You burn it. What do you get when you burn methane? Carbon dioxide. Problem solved!
The reason that our planetary saviors want to burn methane involves the idea of global warming potential or GWP. This is a measure of how powerful one greenhouse gas is relative to others. The units are carbon dioxide equivalence or CO2e. If a particular gas is two times as powerful a greenhouse gas compared to carbon dioxide then it's GWP is two CO2e. Two tons of compound “N” in the atmosphere which has a GWP of 10 CO2e is equivalent to 20 tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Burning the planet in order to stop "warming."
Methane used to have GWP of 21. That was increased a few years ago to 25 and will no doubt continue to climb towards the top of the charts. The payback, figuratively anyway, for mitigating methane emissions is enormous. Burning a ton of methane, according to these mathematics, is the same as reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 24 tons. The Biden administration has recognized the value of reducing methane emissions and have set aside billions to incentivize people to reduce those emissions.
You can read a lot about efforts to cap abandoned petroleum wells and improving work practices to cut down on natural gas losses at active wells. That does happen and will continue to do so, but the more common and in some ways the most profitable route is to simply burn it. Recognizing this reality the EPA is in the process of rewriting regulations in a manner that will force more and more people -- especially in the petrochemical sector -- to send their waste methane to flares and other types of controls that can achieve the methane to carbon dioxide transformation.
Methane is thus getting a lot of attention these days, officially and unofficially. The frightening idea that increasing methane levels may lead to a “termination level transition” of the climate has gained some traction in recent months.
Since 2006, the amount of heat-trapping methane in Earth’s atmosphere has been rising fast, and, unlike the rise in carbon dioxide (CO₂), methane’s recent increase seems to be driven by biological emissions, not the burning of fossil fuels. This might just be ordinary variability — a result of natural climate cycles such as El Niño. Or it may signal that a great transition in Earth’s climate has begun.
What’s causing the increase? Mostly Mother Nature. Increases in vegetation, particularly in wetlands, generate methane as the plants die and decay. But a proper environmentalist can hardly be against wetlands! It’s much easier, and more profitable, to damn the usual suspects: industry in general and the oil and natural gas sectors in particular.
Wetlands: the real villain.
It is fascinating to find that the Biden administration’s EPA, whose leaders regularly fracture shoulder blades patting themselves on the back over how well they practice “sound science,” makes no mention of wetlands, or any other natural sources of methane, on its greenhouse gas web page.
Their pie chart gives the impression that all greenhouse-gas emissions are generated by human activity. The closest they come to identifying natural sources of greenhouse gases is the category “Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use.” But even then they say: “Greenhouse gas emissions from this sector come mostly from agriculture (cultivation of crops and livestock) and deforestation.” Reading their shtick, you wouldn’t know wetlands are part of the equation, much less a huge part when it comes to methane.
One may also find it curious that EPA’s Global Greenhouse Emissions Data dates from 2010. Could it be that nobody has been keeping track of GHG emissions for the last thirteen years? No. Global-warming types are as anxious to collect up to date GHG inventory data as a Chicago alderman collecting votes at the cemetery on election day. The more emissions, the louder they can ring the alarm bells.
The problem the propeller-heads at EPA have with more recent data is not that it fails to show a world-wide increase in GHG emissions. It’s rather the embarrassing fact the western world has been steadily decreasing GHG emissions for over a decade, most spectacularly in the United States. On the other hand, there is China. The only thing that exceeds the rate at which China increases its fossil fuel use is the frequency with which it promises to stop doing so.
America's Most Wanted.
Please understand that I have nothing personally against the Biden administration going after industrial sources of methane in the United States, as pointless an exercise as that is. You can tell it is pointless because when they talk about methane reductions they only speak in terms of millions, sometime billions, of tons reduced. Millions and billions of anything sounds impressive to a fair portion of the public. But you’ll never find them talking in percentages of the whole. Because looked at in those terms, it is clear that a million tons isn’t really all that much.
Fortunately for myself and my family, I work in the environmental industry. I can’t lose. When environmental zealots are in charge, as they are now, my services are indispensable and well rewarded because businesses have to figure out how to navigate through the seas of red tape. When we have more rational leadership, as we had a few years back, my services are indispensable and well rewarded because when a chunk of the red tape gets cleared away, capital goes to work building new facilities and expanding existing ones. In that case there’s a lot more work on the permitting, testing, and consulting side to be had.
So by all means, if you feel inclined to pour money into transforming methane into more carbon dioxide, it’s no skin off my nose. Go for it. But if you happen to believe that your representatives should spend your tax dollars on stuff that actually matters, you might want to drop them a line.