What Is Methane, and Why Is It So Bad for the Climate?

On this episode Sarah talks with Watson Senior Fellow and member of Watson’s Climate Solutions Lab Deborah Gordon. Deborah is an expert on one of the most destructive greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere: methane. Thanks to the work of people like Deborah, the Biden Administration recently made methane reduction one of its top climate priorities. But as Deborah explains, methane has some peculiar physical and financial characteristics that make curbing it much easier said than done. (Originally broadcast in October 2019.)

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[MUSIC PLAYING] SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. When it comes to climate change, we all know that carbon dioxide is a problem, but CO2 isn't the only greenhouse gas we produce. In fact, there's another one that's in many ways, even more destructive to our planet. It's invisible, it's odorless, it's minuit, and it's 120 times more potent than carbon dioxide as soon as it's emitted. That's Watson senior fellow, Deborah Gordon, and the gas she's talking about is methane.

The Biden administration has made methane reduction a central part of their plan to tackle climate change. But given the peculiar science and economics of this gas, that task is far easier said than done. On this episode, we're rebroadcasting an interview I recorded in the fall of Twenty-Nineteen with Deborah. We talked about our global methane problem and about what she and her colleagues have been doing to help solve it. Here's my conversation with Deborah.

So Debbie, thank you so much for coming in to talk to us today.

DEBORAH GORDON: The pleasure to be here.

SARAH BALDWIN: Let's just set the stage a little bit the Intergovernmental Panel on climate change recently lowered the climate accords two degree limit on global warming above pre-industrial levels to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And to even approach that goal despite all the focus on lowering CO2 emissions, your report that just came out states that policymakers, and industry, and civil society should focus their attention on short-lived climate pollutants, which have nothing to do with CO2 like methane. So what are short-lived climate pollutants and why is methane especially dangerous?

DEBORAH GORDON: Short-lived climate pollutants which sometimes you'll see as SLCPs include several other greenhouse gases. Methane being the one that I'm writing about here, but also black carbon, HFC that caused the hole in the ozone layer.

They are super pollutants. What they do is they act much more potently than CO2 does, but much more rapidly. Super pollutants if you think about it more in like layman's terms would be as if CO2 is putting a blanket on the climate, one blanket. A super pollutant or a short lived climate pollutants would be like putting multiple blankets on the climate at the same time. So in the case of methane, you would have 120 blankets. And then they're short-lived, so they reduce their potency quickly. But when they're first released, they are extremely strong, and that means that the warming is more powerful immediately.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, when you say short-lived, how short-lived are they?

DEBORAH GORDON: Well, let me compare it to CO2 because that is carbon dioxide the main greenhouse gas that will live for hundreds, if not thousands of years in the atmosphere. Putting out its multiplier of one, it's the standard of like one blanket around the climate to warm it. A pollutant like methane would be 120 blankets, 120 times the effect of CO2 right away, and then we'll reduce itself over the course of about 20 years.

So it's still in the atmosphere in 20 years. But in 20 years, it might be 80 blankets or 80 times more potent than CO2. And in 100 years, it might be 30% or 35% more potent. So it's still a multiplier that's important and dangerous for the climate, but it is a multiplier that it's at its height right as it's emitted. And then lasts still decades, but not centuries.

SARAH BALDWIN: Before we talk about how methane gets into the atmosphere, can you describe it?

DEBORAH GORDON: So methane is-- it's a stealthy gas, it's invisible, it's odorless, it's minuit, and it's forceful, and that is it's 120 times more potent than carbon dioxide as soon as it's emitted. So reducing methane leakage will not only prevent dangerous warming of the earth, it will also benefit the local environment and public health.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, that makes a lot of sense. I mean it sounds like it's just filthy and it was underestimated for a long time.

DEBORAH GORDON: Well, the thing about methane and CO2 for that matter, they're not reactive. So they're not things that pollute the air in the way that we normally-- you don't see them as black soot that's coming out of a tailpipe. They're inert. Basically, they don't react. And so for a very long time, we ignored them because they weren't doing anything, they were just in the atmosphere when they would be admitted. And they were expressing-- methane was expressly ignored because it doesn't really lead to smog in any rapid succession because it is so inert.

But it's that inertness, that fact that it goes into the atmosphere and doesn't react like CO2, that they create this veil or this covering over the atmosphere that affects the way that heat transfers, and that's what makes it so dangerous. So ignoring it was really because the first thing we did was we went for the things that were leading to immediate harm to ourselves, things that were smog and they would get into your lungs like particulates. These are reactive pollutants. They get into your body and they change your chemistry.

The greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane, they don't react and that is the problem.

SARAH BALDWIN: They just change the atmosphere.

DEBORAH GORDON: They basically shielded. They're covering the atmosphere.

SARAH BALDWIN: They seal us in.

DEBORAH GORDON: Exactly, they're sealing us in and they're sealing the heat in like a greenhouse does, hence the greenhouse effect.

SARAH BALDWIN: So how exactly does methane escape into the atmosphere? What are the main sources?

DEBORAH GORDON: Methane's sources are mostly either biological like rice paddies and certain fermentation that would be more natural side. They also come from landfills. So when things rot, methane can be released, and from livestock from cattle. But the one that I'm writing about and it's a huge contributor and the growing contributor to methane is the oil and gas sector.

So methane is natural gas. So when you go to your stove and you turn on your stove to heat up your soup, you are actually burning natural gas to create heat to cook your food. So natural gas is a very important aspect of our daily lives. It's in heat, it's in steam, it's in power, but that's when it's combusted. So it does create CO2 no matter what. Like you're going to get this baseline greenhouse gas from any fossil fuel oil or gas that you burn coal.

But when you don't burn methane and you leak it through its supply chain between the ground and your stove. When it's leaked as methane, that's when it has this shear enormous multiplier effect of say, 120 as soon as the moment it comes out or even 35 over 20 years. You get this multiplier because the methane is so powerful. So if we're going to continue to use natural gas, it's a very important part of our energy system. The most important thing to do is not leak it.

SARAH BALDWIN: And is the leaking intentional or unintentional?

DEBORAH GORDON: Both. So I'll talk about for a second the unintentional leakage first, because that's the one that is probably harder to deal with, but I think is very important for us to recognize. And that would be every single fitting valve, seal, every connection in the system of oil and gas, every time there's something that isn't a closed system, has the potential to have some of this methane seep out. And that would be unintentional, they call those fugitive emissions because they just appear and they leak out of a system. The systems could be old, they could be faulty, they could be not designed perfectly, but methane can leak out and that would be unintentional.

SARAH BALDWIN: And this is the infrastructure of the entire continent?

DEBORAH GORDON: Yes, this is wells, this is pipelines, this is storage tanks, this is underground pipelines in every city in the world. This is wherever meth-- where there are natural gas moves since it is methane, 95% or 98% methane. That wherever methane or natural gas moves, methane has the potential to unintentionally be leaked.

And some of the biggest leakages that have been found recently are in like Boston. They're old cities with infrastructure that's a century old, and it's not it's no longer news, so it's going to have cracks and faulty connections and things that have loosened over time. So that's the unintentional leakage, and there's a lot of work being done to identify that and fix it.

SARAH BALDWIN: And who's driving that? Like who in whose interest? Obviously, it's in everybody's interest that there be less methane leaking. But we know that altruism doesn't drive a lot of our actions, so who's making sure these leakages are being repaired or at least detected?

DEBORAH GORDON: So methane is also-- I will say this way. A downside of methane or any energy source for that matter. But for methane, a downside of methane is it is combustible. In other words, if it accumulates, it will explode. So it becomes a safety risk.

So safety determines having these systems be as leak free as possible. Because you will have-- if you're going to have a pipeline that's cracked and leaking enough methane, you will have an explosion. Any spark will cause this methane to explode. So safety drives a lot of unintentional methane leakage repair and that's a good thing.

It's also a reason why one of the policies that I've been thinking a lot about in the oil and gas sector from the safety side, is that refineries that turn oil into petroleum products, these refineries can't afford any leaks in them, because they're such a hot explosive fire oriented enterprise. That there might be an opportunity here to design the tighter system that's used in refineries to actually use that in other parts of the system that have the methane can escape more easily. Like if you're out in an oil field and methane escapes and it blows away, it's not going to explode. It's just going to bore your offshore on a platform. It's windy, it's not going to explode. So safety doesn't always rule operations, it rules operations where there's the risk of hazards like an explosion or a fire.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, can you talk a little bit about the oil industry and where methane leakage comes into play there, because that's more intentional, right?

DEBORAH GORDON: It's both. So the oil sector will certainly have these connections that aren't always so tight or as tight as they need to be. These fugitive emissions can happen and do happen all over the industry. Because you think about these operating systems, these processes have a lot of different pieces of equipment and they're each connected to the other. And so any of those can leak and that would still be fugitives.

But the oil industry, the gas industry have a very perverse incentive to leak methane, because oil is worth a lot more than gas. The value that you get producing a barrel of oil will recoup you a lot more money than producing an equivalent barrel of natural gas or the equivalent heating value. So if you have the choice of either producing oil or gas, you really favor oil production.

So that means if there's waste gas that you have no place to put it in your production, because these oil and gas are produced most often together simultaneously. Very few fields in the world produce only oil or only gas. Oil and gas are stored under the ground together and they come out of a well, out of drilling together. So there are often these decisions that have to be made, I've got oil, I want to maximize production of that oil, it's worth a lot more to me, I make more profit.

But I have this gas and either I don't have the takeaway capacity for it or there was a burp in the system and I don't want to shut down my system or turn it down, I need to keep producing. That what operators will do is they will vent their gas. That's purposefully releasing the methane into the air. And because it's invisible and odorless and if you're not in a place where it will explode, no one's looking.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, that's the thing. This isn't tracked, right? This is intentional flaring or venting. I guess you said, that is not regulated.

DEBORAH GORDON: Right. And it's very-- and because it's part of-- So here, let me bring up the third point. So there's the fugitive emissions, we talked about that's when it's unintentionally released anywhere in the system, and usually relatively small amounts. There's a purposeful venting, and that's when you will have an operator open up a hatch or let a pressure relief valve pop and then you just pump the methane into the atmosphere to keep operating.

But there's a very fine grade there of safety, because sometimes those systems have to pop or else you'll risk an explosion in say, your storage tank that's collected of too much methane at the top of it and it will be pressuring, and it will explode if you don't let it go. So there's a fine line on venting for safety and venting for profit. And that's what has to be really identified.

And then the third way methane comes out of the system is through flaring. Flaring people will recognize as usually the candlestick or the flame that's anywhere near a refinery or an oil field. You'll see this tall pipe coming out of the ground, like 30 feet, sometimes 50 feet, and a little or a large flame out of the top.

That is turning waste gas into CO2. It's basically doing what your stove does. It's burning the gas so that it's not venting methane any longer. It's actually transforming the gas by combusting it into CO2.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, I mean putting out CO2 is not the best thing in the world. But that is preferable to sort of this unmeasurable venting.

DEBORAH GORDON: Yes. Yes. So when you are combusting your methane instead of venting it-- so if you're flaring your methane instead of venting it-- you're not going to have that multiplier effect in terms of its import. It's still going to matter to the climate because it's CO2, and you shouldn't do it willfully for no good reason. But it's far less damaging than venting the methane.

But the problem is a lot of eyes are on those flares, which is a good thing because you want to make sure you're not overly flaring. But there have been policies put in place recently to minimize flaring. And so when you are forcing an operator to minimize their flaring, they turn off the pilot, and they will vent the methane when no one's looking.

SARAH BALDWIN: So how can we incentivize oil companies to properly flare, if that's the least awful solution? How can we bring them in line with some sort of reasonable climate goals when I don't see what their interest would be? If they're really interested in the bottom line and making their shareholders happy, I don't see how to sort of make them change these practices.

DEBORAH GORDON: Some of this comes down to my research on the oil climate index, which is about the heterogeneity of these resources and how you can have certain resources that are lower emitting, they're cleaner, and other resources that are just naturally dirtier. And then you have operating practices. But because of the heterogeneity and the competitiveness of this industry, you can actually use policy to create competition so that the cleaner operators are favored whether they aren't divested in first, or whether they are reinvested in first.

So I think using this heterogeneity and better operating practices and pitting kind of better operators against their competitors that are worse-- because why should we actually reward bad operators? No good operator wants to see their competitor who's doing things that are damaging being given a market edge. So much fairer system is to either-- there's so many policies. You can use this kind of favorability, unfavorability rating, whether indexing, whether it's through taxes or fees, whether it's through policy, whether it's through divestment protocols. You can actually start to pick and choose the better operators.

SARAH BALDWIN: But in a Twenty-Eighteen report, didn't you write that there's no designated authority on inventorying greenhouse gases? Who's going to do that?

DEBORAH GORDON: This is the big brand new question that this report is about, that it's going to take a hybrid approach that's going to be a combination of detection mechanisms to force better reportability of this. And we're going to need things like the satellites that both government and the private sector are putting up right now.

So we're partners with NASA on their whole constellation of satellites. The Environmental Defense Fund is putting up a new satellite, I think, in Twenty-Twenty-Two. The California Air Resources Board is putting up its own satellite. There's going to be a lot more detection from the sky to observe methane.

SARAH BALDWIN: So you can observe methane because of heat sensing?

DEBORAH GORDON: So methane is interesting. And it's not perfect. That's why you need a hybrid approach. It would be fantastic if we could see all the methane easily from the sky. But the problem with methane is actually, it's very light. It's lighter than air, so as soon as it's released, it floats. So the first thing you need to do when you detect methane in the satellite, what you basically do is you need to then reverse engineer through climate models where, given all of the meteorology on the ground, where that methane came from on the ground.

SARAH BALDWIN: Oh my God that sounds Herculean.

DEBORAH GORDON: So this is all part of what NASA's doing with their researchers. We're working with researchers at Harvard that actually do this reverse modeling to do attribution. So that's one issue.

The other big issue with remote sensing from the sky with methane is it can't pick up methane over water.


DEBORAH GORDON: Reflectivity from the water. So you can't pick up the light signature. So the satellite detection's only good over land, and that's a huge problem because so much of the world's oil and gas is over water. It's offshore. Or with liquefied natural gas, it's going to be on ships moving around the world. And if it leaks, it's going to leak the ocean, or when you're on the ocean. So this is why, again, we need a hybrid approach because satellites are really important, but they're not sufficient. So you've got that.

The next level of detection are flyovers you have airplanes that go much lower to the ground, or even drones that go very close to the ground that are actually observing it before you have to do a lot of this reverse chemistry to figure out where it came from because you're much closer to it when it comes out of the ground. We even have Google cars now that have actual instrumentation on them to pick up methane for the leakage that will happen on city streets and pipelines.

SARAH BALDWIN: Like LIDAR or something?


SARAH BALDWIN: That's amazing.

DEBORAH GORDON: So there are all of those levels, atmospheric levels of detection. Even that, though, isn't necessarily sufficient because you want to know how much and how long so what we've devised in this engineering model is a bottom up approach that actually uses that satellite data to build up engineering models that can run scenarios and do projections of what pieces of equipment are most likely to be releasing, and when they release, how much was in the system so that you can know how much actually came out.

So this oil climate index is this engineering model, which is bottom up. Again, it's necessary but not sufficient. So when you combine these top down satellite flyover drone Google car with the bottom up engineering models, you actually can start to tell the most complete story of where methane is, and where in the system it's most faulty, and where it's most likely to leak. And you can create much more proficient projections for pointing devices where it's most likely to come out.

SARAH BALDWIN: So who are you hoping will read this report and use the index?

DEBORAH GORDON: The report is as much geared to industry as it is, I think, to policymakers and investors. I think a very big part of this enterprise, the oil and gas enterprise, is driven by money and by who's going to invest, divest, reinvest. So I'm hoping that-- they call them ESG funds. ESG is environmental, social and governance, the ESG funds that are actually pots of money in the trillions that need to be put on projects that are actually going to be less damaging to the environment. So I think the investors are a very important part of this as well. And of course, the NGO community and civil society.

SARAH BALDWIN: Are any of the big producers doing anything significantly promising in terms of climate?

DEBORAH GORDON: The most hopeful thing about the largest producers-- the big oil companies, the international oil companies-- are that they're almost too big to fail, so all eyes are always on them. It's very hard for them to do the wrong thing and not get noticed. I think that the risk with methane immediately tends to be the smaller producers, often the wildcatters, the ones that don't have takeaway capacity for their gas, that are making fast money that they need to make on their oil. Those are often the riskiest corporate actors.

The big thing is that when the larger companies fail, they fail big. So you'll get these hot spots or these super emitters that will come out of, like, Aliso Canyon in California. This was a storage facility in Southern California a few years ago that there was an accident in. So it certainly wasn't purposeful. But whether there could have been better maintenance on the facility is always a question.

But a storage facility broke, and there was this huge plume for months of methane. I think it ended up being more than California's entire methane budget over the course of years leaked in a matter of months. So when there is a failure where there's a lot of volume, either in storage or production, that becomes a major contributor to what then lives in the atmosphere for the next 20 years. And that becomes a big problem for the climate.

I think that all actors matter with this. The biggest problem is methane can be released in so many different ways throughout an entire supply chain, from production to shipping to refining and processing all the way to pipelines and city streets and delivery, and at your own home, where you have a stove or a furnace. So it really matters that over time, we develop the tightest net that can detect methane for its quick repair.

lems for flooding to the year:

The thing about methane is it's so rapid so quickly. So policymakers can make a huge difference on their watch. And I think that that's what makes methane's management so much more productive and possible because if these policymakers move to manage methane, they're going to get credit for doing so. It's going to happen while they're in office.

SARAH BALDWIN: And it's going to matter.

DEBORAH GORDON: And it's going to matter.

SARAH BALDWIN: And it will be tangible.

DEBORAH GORDON: So one of the policies I've been thinking a lot about recently that falls out of this paper is that we've been working for a very long time to do carbon taxes or to price CO2. I'm not saying we shouldn't ultimately try to do that because this is a gas, CO2, that lives in the atmosphere very long time. And we're going to have our grandchildren, great grandchildren, and their great grandchildren live with these fallouts.

But pricing methane matters now. So if we're going into a test run on what it takes to really price and use the power of the market to deal with climate change, doing it to price methane now will not only help remove a pollutant and change the incentives, like we were saying, in the investment community. But it will also tighten the net on measuring it and monitoring it because when you're paying for something, you want to make sure that your neighbor and your competitor are accurately reporting what they're doing because you don't want to be the one paying when it's their fault.

SARAH BALDWIN: That's a great idea. And in fact, I'm going to let you go so you can hurry off to Washington and tell everyone you know. That's fantastic. This has been so interesting, Debbie. And thank you for that note of hope at the end.

DEBORAH GORDON: Oh, thank you, Sarah, It was a pleasure.

SARAH BALDWIN: I hope you'll come back and talk with us again.


SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Babette Thomas. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. You can learn more about Deborah's work by visiting Watson's new Climate Solutions Lab online. We'll put a link in the show notes. You can learn more about Watson's other podcasts on our website. We'll have a link to that in the notes, too.

And if you like us, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Or if you have a friend who you think would like the show, tell them about it. We'll be back next week with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks.

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