U.S. methane emissions may exceed government estimates

Published on: Dec 2, 2013

Emissions of methane from fossil fuel extraction and refining activities in the south central U.S. are nearly five times higher than previous estimates, according to researchers at Harvard University and seven other institutions. Their study, published last month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), also suggests that the contribution from livestock operations may be higher than previously thought.

Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is produced through natural gas production and distribution, cattle farming, landfills, coal mining, manure management and other anthropogenic and natural sources, although human activities are thought to contribute approximately 60% of the total.

Overall, according to the new study, total methane emissions in the U.S. appear to be 1.5 times and 1.7 times higher than the amounts previously estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the international Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR), respectively.

The difference lies in the methodology. EPA and EDGAR use a bottom-up approach, calculating total emissions based on "emissions factors" — the amount of methane typically released per cow or per unit of coal or natural gas sold, for example, according to the announcement. The new study takes a top-down approach, measuring what is actually present in the atmosphere and then using meteorological data and statistical analysis to trace it back to regional sources, Harvard said.

Generated by a large, multi-institutional team of researchers, the latest findings offer a comprehensive baseline for assessing policies designed to reduce greenhouse gases. They also point to a few areas where the assumptions built into recent emissions factors and estimated totals may be flawed, the announcement said.

"The bottom-up and top-down approaches give us very different answers about the level of methane gas emissions," noted lead author Scot M. Miller, a doctoral student in earth and planetary sciences through the Harvard Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. "Most strikingly, our results are higher by a factor of 2.7 over the south-central U.S., which we know is a key region for fossil-fuel extraction and refining. It will be important to resolve that discrepancy in order to fully understand the impact of these industries on methane emissions."

Along with carbon dioxide, methane is one of the most important greenhouse gases in terms of its potential to raise global temperatures.

Miller studies in the lab of Steven C. Wofsy, Abbott Lawrence Rotch professor of atmospheric and environmental science in Harvard's School of Engineering & Applied Sciences.

"When we measure methane gas at the atmospheric level, we're seeing the cumulative effect of emissions that are happening at the surface across a very large region," Wofsy, a co-author of the PNAS study, said. "That includes the sources that were part of the bottom-up inventories, but maybe also things they didn't think to measure."

Miller and Wofsy, along with colleagues at the Carnegie Institution for Science, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and five other institutions, used a combination of observation and modeling to conduct their analysis.

NOAA and the U.S. Department of Energy collect observations of methane and other gases from the tops of telecommunications towers and during research flights. The team combined this data with meteorological models of the temperatures, winds and movement of air masses from the same time period, and then used a statistical method known as geostatistical inverse modeling to essentially run the model backward and determine the methane's origin.

The team also compared these results with regional economic and demographic data, as well as other information that provided clues to the sources — for example, data on human populations, livestock populations, electricity production from power plants, oil and natural gas production, production from oil refineries, rice production and coal production. In addition, they drew correlations between methane levels and other gases that were observed at the time. For example, a high correlation between levels of methane and propane in the south-central region suggests a significant role for fossil fuels there, Harvard said.