From fracking to flatulence: the all-out assault on methane

By |2016-08-22T12:38:53+00:00August 22nd, 2016|CFACT Insights|7 Comments
cowch4What is the “biggest unfinished business for the Obama Administration?” According to a report from Bill McKibben, the outspoken climate alarmist who calls for all fossil fuels to be kept in the ground, it is “to establish tight rules on methane emissions”—emissions that he blames on the “rapid spread of fracking.” 
McKibben calls methane emissions a “disaster.” He claims that “methane is much more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide” and that it does more damage to the climate than coal. Methane, CH4, is the primary component of natural gas.
Apparently, his progressive friends in California agree, as they are poopnow, according to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ): “seeking to curb the natural gas emanating from dairy farms”—more specifically cow manure and flatulence. The August 12 editorial notes that the California Air Resources Board “suggests that dairy farms purchase technology to capture methane and then sell the biogas to customers.”
It acknowledges that the supposed cure would only be cost-effective with “substantial government subsidies and regulatory credits.” The WSJ points out that while California’s proposed regulations might produce the “least GHG intensive” gallon of milk in the world, it would also be the “most expensive.”
billieboyTo buttress his anti-fracking argument, McKibben is selective on which studies he cites. He starts with a paper from “Harvard researchers” that shows increased methane emissions between 2002 and 2014 but doesn’t pinpoint the source of the methane. He, then, relies heavily on “a series of papers” from known fracking opponents: Cornell Scientists Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea.
Within his report, McKibben mentions Howarth’s bias, but, I believe, intentionally never mentions Ingraffea’s. Earlier this year, in sworn testimony, Ingraffea admitted he’d be lying if he said that every one of his papers on shale gas was “entirely objective.” Additionally, Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy, a group that Ingraffa co-founded and for which he serves as Board Chair, Emeritus , received (at least) tens of thousands of dollars in coordination with wealthy foundations to support the broad movement of opposition to shale gas drilling.
Because of bias, McKibben claims to reach out to an “impeccably moderate referee”: Dan Lashof. Mckibben then goes on to report on Lashof as having been “in the inner circles of climate policy almost since it began.” In addition to writing reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and crafting Obama’s plan to cut “coal plant pollution,” Lashof was the “longtime head of the Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.” He now serves as COO for “billionaire Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate America.” Lashof is hardly an “impeccably moderate referee.”
Because McKibben goes to great lengths trying to appear balanced in his conclusions, a casual reader of his report might think the research cited is all there is and, therefore, agree with his cataclysmic views. Fortunately, as a just-released paper makes clear, much more research needs to be considered before cementing public policy, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s “tight rules on methane emissions.”
In the 28 peer-reviewed pages (with nearly 70 footnotes) of Bill isaacorrMcKibben’s terrifying disregard for fracking facts, Isaac Orr, research fellow for energy and environment policy at The Heartland Institute, states: “Although McKibben—a journalist, not a scientist—accurately identifies methane as being exceptionally good at capturing heat in Earth’s atmosphere, his ‘the-sky-is-falling’ analysis is based on cherry-picking data useful to his cause, selectively interpreting the results of other studies, ignoring contradicting data, and failing to acknowledge the real uncertainties in our understanding of how much methane is entering the atmosphere. In the end, methane emissions aren’t nearly as terrifying as McKibben claims.”
In the Heartland Institute Policy Brief, Orr explains why it has been difficult to achieve consistent readings on methane emissions: “Tools have been developed only recently to measure accurately methane emissions, with new and better equipment progressively replacing less perfect methods.” He then details the various methods:
·         Direct measurement of emissions, on-site, identifies methane emissions from specific sources; 
·         Ambient Air Monitoring uses aerial surveys, allows large areas to be surveyed, with results affected by uncertainties; 
·         Life-Cycle Analyses draw on multiple sources to provide an integrated measure of emissions from the entire natural gas value chain; and 
·         Meta-Analyses combine the results of multiple studies using different methodologies or databases to search for overarching trends, recurring facts, and robust findings.
wetlandsmethaneThroughout the section on methodology, Orr draws attention to the results of the various techniques—which he says shows “great uncertainty about how much methane is entering the atmosphere, how much is produced by oil and natural gas production, and how emissions can be managed in the future.” He also points out that more than 75 studies examining methane emissions from oil and gas systems have been done, yet “McKibben chose an outdated study [Howarth/Ingraffea] that used unrealistic assumptions and reached inaccurate conclusions.”  Additionally: “Natural gas producers have a powerful economic motive to reduce methane leakage and use technologies that capture methane emissions during the drilling and well completion phase.”
Orr asserts that McKibben’s assertions that methane emissions are from the oil-and-gas sector are “simplistic” and “inappropriate.” Regarding the Harvard study, he explains: “Estimating the contributions from different source types and regions is difficult because there are many different sources of methane, and those sources overlap in the same spatial area.
For example, methane is produced naturally in wetlands—and it is worth noting that environmentalists support ‘restoring’ wetlands despite the increases in methane emissions this would cause. Methane also is produced by agriculture through growing rice and raising livestock, fast-growing activities in developing countries. This makes it difficult to calculate exactly where methane is coming from and what sources should be controlled.”  Based on McKibben’s approach, other sections of The Heartland report include: Methane and Global Warming, Repeating Gasland Falsehoods, and What’s the Fracking Alternative?—with the latter being my favorite. 
Because McKibben’s ultimate goal is to keep fossil fuels in the mckground, he goes to great lengths to support how wind and solar—the fracking alternatives—have progressed (an argument that Orr takes apart). However, a careful read of McKibben’s version of the story reveals that he acknowledges that his preferred energy sources are uneconomic. Within his report, McKibben admits that fracking has “brought online new shale deposits across the continent.” He sarcastically derides politicians who viewed fracking as a win-win situation by suggesting they were cynically saying they “could appease the environmentalists with their incessant yammering about climate change without having to run up the cost of electricity.”
McKibben even attacks President Obama’s support of natural gas—made abundant thanks to the companion technologies of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. (He’s not too happy with Secretary Clinton’s efforts either.) Here are a few of the key phrases McKibben uses in that paragraph: (Note: McKibben sees these as negatives.)
·         “The fracking boom offered one of the few economic bright spots”;
·         “Manufacturing jobs were actually returning from overseas, attracted by newly abundant energy”; and
·         “The tool that made restrictions on coal palatable.”
Combine these McKibben statements and he is clearly aware that his plan will take away one of the few economic bright spots; that due to higher priced electricity, manufacturing jobs will leave our shores; and coal regulations will be unpalatable. While McKibben touts the oft-mentioned line about Denmark generating 42% of its power from wind, Orr reminds us that the figure only accounts for electricity—not total energy. When factoring in all of Denmark’s energy consumption, wind, solar, and geothermal only account for 5% of the energy mix and, as Orr explains, Denmark has the highest electricity rates in Europe and is still dependent on fossil fuels for the vast majority of its energy.
I am often asked why the anti-fossil-fuel crowd has so recently turned against the decades-old technology of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that has provided such economic and environmental benefits and has become even safer due to ever-increasing advances.
In his report, McKibben states what is essentially the answer I often give: “One of the nastiest side effects of the fracking boom, in fact, is that the expansion of natural gas has undercut the market for renewables.” It has upset the entire worldview of people like McKibben who’d banked on oil and natural gas being scarce—and therefore expensive. In that paradigm, wind and solar power would be the saviors. Now they are an expensive redundancy.
Worrying about whether methane emissions come from oil and gas activities, from agriculture, such as cow flatulence or rice farming, or from naturally occurring seeps may seem irrelevant to the average energy consumer’s day. However, when you consider that long-term, expensive public policy is being based on this topic, it is important to be informed fairly and accurately—and to communicate with your elected officials accordingly. 


  1. Frederick Colbourne August 23, 2016 at 12:24 AM

    Regarding flatulence and belching (burping), most is caused by bacteria in the gut acting on vegetable matter.

    (In cows most excretion of methane may be from belching.)

    The vegetable matter eaten by farm animals derives its carbon compounds from CO2 in the atmosphere. The methane produced in the gut and returned to the atmosphere eventually breaks down into CO2 and water.

    So to some extent the “greenhouse” effect of excreted methan involves double-counting. Since methane takes about ten years to be decomposed into CO2, that’s the duration of the elevated GHG effect of methane above that of CO2 itself, not ingested by animals..

    If we accept that the elevated GHG effect is 28 times that of CO2 and the residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere is 100 years, one molecule of methane emitted by a cow is equivalent to an excess of GHG effect equivalent to the addition of 2.8 molecules of CO2 to the atmosphere.

    As it turns out, the excess GHG effect of methane expelled by the cow is only 10% of its nominal value.

    All farm animals account for 44% of atmospheric methane emmissions, now about 2000 parts per billion. Thus, all farm animals produce 900 parts per billion methane.

    This methane adds 10% over and above the effect of CO2 if not passed through animals, about 90 parts per billion.

    This methane increases the GHG effect by 0.9 parts per million over the present 400 parts per million of CO2 now in the atmosphere.

    However, 0.9 divied by 400 is about one-quarter of one per cent.

    The amount is not merely trivial, but is also less than the seasonal variation in global CO2 and is not detectable by our present technology.

    If all farm animals disappeared,tomorrow, we could not measure the impact on the radiative balance of the atmosphere.

    The policy makes no sense because the science is based on effects that are trivial.

    • Brin Jenkins August 24, 2016 at 4:17 AM

      Further the heating mechanism must be explained,not assumed.

      • cshorey September 1, 2016 at 5:22 PM

        Retention of thermal IR in bands not redundant with the other heat trapping gasses. We’ve talked, and so I know you don’t understand the greenhouse effect, so no, I don’t expect this explanation to lower the entropy of your brain.

    • cshorey September 1, 2016 at 5:21 PM

      You don’t account for stored carbon in permafrost and soil deposits and how the fluxes alter with T change. Due to this, your entire analysis is incomplete and comes to the wrong conclusions. Brin will pat you on the back for that though.

      • Frederick Colbourne September 3, 2016 at 4:18 AM

        There is only so much one can do in a comment.

        Besides, this was a response to concern about cow farts.

  2. John Lentini August 25, 2016 at 4:43 PM

    This is what I read about Methane.

    Methane is irrelevant as a greenhouse gas.

    While methane can act as a greenhouse gas, the IR spectrum it absorbs in is already saturated by water vapor.

    What you need to about the EPA’s new rules about Methane. The purpose is to make it more difficult/expensive for fracking and oil development Theoretically methane is 20 times stronger a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. However it is only 0.00017% of the atmosphere and it competes with water vapor for the same IR spectrum. Since water vapor is 1 to 2% of the atmosphere, there is no competition and no measurable effect. If it actually worked as the EPA suggests, the change in temperature would be 0.002 degrees Celsius by year 2100. More lies from the EPA!

    • cshorey September 1, 2016 at 5:19 PM

      Wrong. Not irrelevant at all. It only absorbs in the same spectrum at 1atm pressure. Unfortunately for your argument, a lot of the atmosphere is not at 1atm (that’s a bit of humor for you if you think about it, as the great majority of atmosphere is not at 1atm pressure. So now that you know that you need to take pressure into account, you can trust the Air Force studies that say methane definitely is not redundant to H2O. Now, where did you get your information?

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