Who's Afraid of Cow Farts?

Methane is a compound about which environmental groups can’t seem to make up their minds. Thirty or so years ago, methane was touted as a "cure" for “climate change” according to the Sierra Club and many like-minded environmental groups. More recently, it’s become the focus of massive new environmental regulatory efforts because it is a somewhat more powerful greenhouse gas when compared to carbon dioxide. Accordingly, the importance of global methane emissions have increased from “who cares?” to “Enviro freak-out Def-Con Level 2” in recent years. But interestingly enough, new evidence suggests that higher concentrations of methane in the atmosphere might actually be good for the environment, even by environmentalist standards.

As you may already know, methane is the primary ingredient of natural gas. It's also produced naturally, and in great quantity, when biological matter decays. When active human or animal life is involved the product of this decay is typically emitted as flatulence, which is rich in methane. This is a matter of endless amusement to those of us involved in the environmental industry, but also a matter of great concern to people worried about "climate change." Particularly where cows are concerned. Should future historians wish to define the current environmental movement, we can only hope that they start here: the environmental movement in the early twenty-first century was not only obsessed with cow farts, they spent untold amounts of money researching schemes to reduce their supposed environmental impact.

Thirty years ago many environmental groups were focused on carbon dioxide emissions generated from the combustion of coal. In that context carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of natural gas were much preferable. When one burns natural gas, energy is generated from the oxidation of carbon and from the oxidation of the four hydrogen atoms that accompany each carbon atom in methane. Even better, environmental NGO's used to believed, one can burn natural gas using a technology called "combined cycle" that is roughly twice as efficient as burning coal to generate electricity. The two effects combined would lead to a massive reduction in carbon dioxide emissions if natural-gas-fired power plants replaced coal-fired power plants. The Sierra Club and other environmental organizations recognized this and for a number of years were champions of the natural gas industry and combined cycle power.

Simple chemistry.

But at the start of the the new millennium those groups were faced with a conundrum. They had been too successful. It became more and more difficult to get people worked up about coal-fired power when the industry had been essentially decimated in America. Environmental groups, like all special interest organizations, require an evil antagonist if they are going to survive. With coal becoming increasingly irrelevant and natural gas filling the gap, natural gas transitioned from being the solution of the 1990s to the problem as it is portrayed today.

The environmentalist playbook features two standard attacks on natural gas. The first is the undeniable fact that burning natural gas, which is a fossil fuel, emits carbon dioxide. The fact that it emits significantly less carbon dioxide per unit of energy created than coal matters little in their minds. In the minds of these malicious zealots, any amount is too much.

The second involves the fact that natural gas is typically around 95 percent methane and methane is a greenhouse gas. It's actually a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. When the E.P.A. first started to inventory greenhouse gases it assigned a Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 21 to methane. This meant that, according to the agency, 1 pound of methane gas in the atmosphere would retain the heat equivalent to 21 pounds of carbon dioxide.

The E.P.A. would later upgrade methane’s GWP to 25, and then again to 28. For many of us chemists these adjustments were baffling. A compound’s ability to retain heat, or more correctly to reflect certain wavelengths of energy, is a matter of its physical and thermodynamic properties. We generally treat those as inalterable once they have been established through sufficient research.

That is not to say that any scientific data deemed “established” should not ever be questioned. But modifying the thermodynamic properties of methane gas so quickly and significantly raised more than a few eyebrows. After all, there is a tendency for many in government and academia to accept research that supports their preferred causes and preconceived effects without much discussion, especially where "climate" is concerned. Relatedly, research that challenges preconceived notions in the environmental field tends to be dismissed as being either intellectually flawed or knowingly prejudicial.

You talkin' to me?

Now, the Biden administration has allocated billions of dollars to reduce methane emissions in the United States, to help combat "climate change." The evidence cited includes an increase in methane emissions in America and worldwide and the increased GWP values assigned to methane emissions. There is big money to be had for anyone who can turn methane into carbon dioxide. Such folks are supposedly saving the planet by a factor of 28 times!

But here's a real hiccup in the environmentalist narrative -- new research suggests that methane in the atmosphere may also have a partial cooling effect on the atmosphere as well. The extent to which this particular theory is accurate remains to be seen. The ultimate take-home should be this: atmospheric interactions that regulate the climate and produce weather are enormously complex. Attempts to reduce our understanding of the phenomenon we call “climate change” to any one or two variables in that massive and complicated equation are worse than misguided and counter-productive.

In closing, let us consider the following. If you happen to own land that includes abandoned gas or oil wells that are emitting methane the Biden administration will gladly pay you a bunch of money to burn that methane and turn it into carbon dioxide. Should not the same logic apply when you use a stove that uses methane-rich natural gas in your home? As I see it, cooking on a gas range isn’t merely about feeding your family, it saves the planet!