The oil, gas and coal industries emit far more methane than previously understood, a finding that could complicate calculations about the speed of climate change and the best ways to address it, according to new research.
Researchers behind the study, published in the journal Nature, found that methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, as well as natural methane emissions from underground, are 60% to 110% higher in total than previously thought.
Scientists have only recently begun to grapple fully with the role methane—the most common chemical in natural gas—plays in contributing to man-made climate change. The effect of the gas on climate change is 25 times greater than carbon dioxide, pound per pound, but methane disappears from the atmosphere much more quickly, according to Environmental Protection Agency data.
Many energy and environment experts have hailed natural gas as cheap and relatively clean in comparison to coal and other fossil fuels. But new research has suggested that the methane emitted in the natural gas recovery and transportation process may make the energy source less desirable.
While the study found that scientists had previously underestimated the amount of methane emissions, the new research also suggests that methane emissions from the fossil fuel industry are not growing—in fact, they have remained relatively constant over the past three decades despite dramatic growth in natural gas production. Study author Stefan Schwietzke, a scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, explained that the consistency in methane emissions might be due to efforts by natural gas producers to improve practices and limit waste.
Still, the current level of methane emissions remains a concern, one that scientists and policymakers are scrambling to address. Many questions remain unanswered, and Schwietzke said more research is needed. "It certainly is a scientific process," says Schwietzke of studying methane. "As more data comes to the surface sometimes conclusions can change."