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Fossil fuel methane emissions greater than previously thought

Staff Writer | October 15, 2016
Methane emissions from fossil fuel development around the world are up to 60 percent greater than estimated by previous studies.
Methane emissions
Nature   Dramatic production increases
This is according to new research led by scientists from NOAA and CIRES. The study found that fossil fuel activities contribute between 132 million and 165 million tons of the 623 million tons of methane emitted by all sources every year.

That’s about 20 to 25 percent of total global methane emissions, and 20 to 60 percent more than previous studies estimated.

However, the findings also confirm other work by NOAA scientistsoffsite link that conclude fossil fuel facilities are not directly responsible for the increased rate of global atmospheric methane emissions measured in the atmosphere since 2007.

“We recognize the findings might seem counterintuitive – methane emissions from fossil fuel development have been dramatically underestimated – but they’re not directly responsible for the increase in total methane emissions observed since 2007,” said lead author Stefan Schwietzke.

Schwietzke is a scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciencesoffsite link (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder, working in NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory.

The upward revision in the estimate of fossil fuel methane emissions comes despite improvements in industry practices that have reduced leaks from oil and gas facilities from about 8 percent of production to about 2 percent over the past three decades.

Dramatic production increases have canceled out efficiency gains however, keeping the overall contribution from fossil fuel activities constant.

The research, published today in the journal Nature, analyzed the largest database of methane measurements ever assembled to determine how much methane is coming from fossil fuel development, natural geologic sources, microbial activity, and biomass burning.

After carbon dioxide, methane is the second largest contributor to global warming. While not as abundant or as long-lived as CO2, methane is 28 times more effective at trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere over a 100-year time span.

Reducing methane emissions from fossil fuel activities could be a cost-effective strategy to slow the rate of global warming during the next century, the authors said.