WANTED: Mickey Methane and The Fugitives
By Guy Dauncey on February 4, 2013
Mickey must be apprehended, so that his activities cease putting our future and our children’s future in such danger
No, they’re not a rock band—they’re a planetary emergency, and a danger to us all. Micky Methane is #2 in the Ten Most Wanted Climate Criminals, along with Charlie Carbon, Nellie Nitrous Oxide, Freddie and the F Gases and Billy Black, also known as Sooty. They’re all packing heat, and need to be apprehended.
As a gang, their continued escapes need urgently to be prevented, so that they cease committing their crimes against the climate. Their crimes are already impacting and will continue to impact all of nature and humanity for thousands of years. Those who have already escaped need to be captured. Left to their own devices, they will continue to warm the atmosphere and oceans, with dire consequences for all Earth’s species.
Charlie Carbon is the most prolific of the gang, so he tends to get most of the media. He is committing less than 50% of the climate crime, however, and the attention he receives as poster-boy for the gang is enabling the rest of the gang to continue their crimes scot-free.
A powerhouse within the gang
Micky Methane, the Number #2, is a powerhouse within the gang. Carrying the badge CH4, he packs a real punch when it comes to trapping heat. Over twenty years, each of his molecules can trap more than a hundred times more heat than Charlie’s, because he absorbs infrared radiation at a wavelength where water vapor and the other greenhouse gases can’t. This is why it’s so essential that his escapes be prevented. Mickey Methane is a fugitive, and must be apprehended.
To put this it its full perspective, there have been dramatic recent warnings about the perils of 4°C warming from the World Bank,[i] and the economist Sir Nicholas Stern, who said “I got it wrong on climate change - it’s far, far worse (…) This is potentially so dangerous that we have to act strongly. Do we want to play Russian roulette with two bullets or one? These risks for many people are existential."[ii]
Where does Mickey come from? Since the start of the industrial age his presence in the atmosphere has increased by more than 250%.[iii] Around 36% of his modern-era escapes come from the coal and gas industries. After 300 million years of being trapped safely underground, he is escaping with alarming frequency as the ancient fossil fuels are extracted. 23% of his escapes come from the livestock industry, and the huge herds of cattle that are being raised for meat and dairy. He is also escaping through landfills and sewage treatment (9%), rice paddies (9%), and biomass burning (7%).[iv] In recent years he’s been escaping in unknown quantities in the Arctic, due to the rapidly melting ice and permafrost for which the gang is directly responsible.[v]
Mickey’s staying power is short
The good news is that Mickey’s Methane’s staying power is short. He’s only good for ten years, after which he starts to breaks down. Here at Climate HQ we’ve been making a major error in our tactics over the last twenty years by measuring the gang’s escapes over 100 years - a purely political decision that was made by the IPCC many years ago - instead of looking more closely at each molecule’s actual escapes and planning accordingly. We measure their heat-trapping skills by comparing their Global Warming Potentials, which tells us where to prioritize and who we should be chasing.
Over 100 years, Mickey Methane is still a major culprit, trapping 25 to 33 times more heat per molecule than Charlie Carbon, but over twenty years, which is the timeframe we should be concerned with, he traps a hundred times more heat than Charlie.[vi] He remains #2 on our list because Charlie Carbon’s CO2 is far more prolific, being present in the atmosphere at 390 parts per million compared to Mickey’s CH4 at 1800 parts per billion. If we don’t take immediate action to apprehend Mickey as well as Charlie, however, our efforts to prevent the climate from warming dramatically will be in vain.
Here at Climate HQ we don’t have limitless resources, so we have to go after what’s achievable. We can’t catch Mickey in the Arctic, since he’s escaping such a vast region. We can try to stop him at the landfill by requiring every landfill to install methane capture technology, but even the best landfill gas systems capture only 70% of the methane.[vii]
We can make a personal effort to consume less beef and dairy. The Fugitives love the global livestock industry, since it helps Charlie, Nellie and Billy Black to escape, as well as Mickey; taken together, according to the UN Report Livestock’s Long Shadow, the gang’s molecules released by the livestock industry are causing 18% of global warming, more than all the world’s transport.[viii]
The natural gas industry may be the fastest growing source of Mickey’s escapes, however, due to the shale gas revolution and its controversial technique of fracking. Natural gas is 90% methane, so whenever a gas company turns a blind eye to leaks from its valves, pipes and compression stations, and whenever it deliberately purges a system, Mickey’s on the run, off into the atmosphere to trap more heat.
Giving Mickey more scrutiny
In a conventional natural gas operation, using a conservative estimate for the upstream emissions, around 1.6% of the gas either escapes, or is deliberately vented as methane. A further 2.5% escapes as downstream emissions from pipes, storage, and distribution systems, and this, too, may be a conservative estimate.[ix] That’s more than 4% of the natural gas escaping as methane - and since nobody has been paying attention or punishing the gas industry for the losses, Mickey has been getting a free ‘get out of jail’ card.
In recent years, however, researchers have been giving Mickey and his fugitive emissions from the shale gas industry a lot more scrutiny. In 2008, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration started taking a close look at actual plumes of pollutants in the air north of Denver, Colorado. Their readings led them to an area where 20,000 oil and gas wells had been dug, where they found that the wells were losing between 2.3% and 7.7% of the gas as methane, and that’s without counting the transmission/distribution pipeline system and storage losses. In December 2012, the same team reported an even higher finding in the Uinta Basin Natural Gas facility in Utah, where 9% of the gas is escaping as methane.[x]
With shale gas escape numbers like these, Mickey’s mocking us, as he makes his way up into the atmosphere. The studies are site-specific, but they lend credence to the work of Bob Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea at Cornell University, whose research indicates that between 3.8% and 7.9% of the gas is escaping from shale gas operations, twice as much as from conventional gas operations.[xi]
‘No problem - Mickey’s our friend’
The natural gas industry says, ‘Hey, no problem - Mickey’s our friend’, and its spokespeople are working to counter the studies. Mickey doesn’t carry a GPS marker when he escapes, so there’s not yet clear scientific certainty as to how he’s getting out at each shale gas well, or in what quantities. But here at Climate HQ the climate alarm bells are ringing all over, since at the high end Mickey’s escape numbers put him right up there with Charlie Carbon’s coal as the most dangerous climate culprit of them all.[xii]
Mickey must be apprehended
Mickey’s on the run, and the livestock and the natural gas industries are aiding and abetting his escape. He is a danger to all of us, and needs to be apprehended as soon as possible, along with Charlie Carbon and the rest of the gang.
Please post this WANTED alert to blogs and media outlets, since Mickey has been hiding from public scrutiny for far too long. Mickey must be apprehended, so that his activities cease putting our future and our children’s future in such danger.
[i] A 4 Degree Warmer World - We must and can avoid it. http://climatechange.worldbank.org/content/4-degree-warmer-world-we-must-and-can-avoid-it-infographic
[ii] Guardian, Jan 26, 2013 http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jan/27/nicholas-stern-climate-change-davos
[iii] CDIAC Recent Greenhouse gas concentrations, Feb 2012 http://cdiac.ornl.gov/pns/current_ghg.html
[iv] These are tentative estimates from new research at Cornell University by a group of Ph.D. candidates in global biogeochemistry under the tutelage of Robert Howarth. Email communication from Howarth on Feb. 4, 2013.
[v] Study Finds Surprising Arctic Methane Emission Source. Science News, April 24, 2012 http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120424145145.htm See also The Arctic Methane Emergency Group, http://www.ameg.me
[vi] In the current IPCC Report, methane’s GWP is listed at 25 over 100 years, 72 over 20 years. In the forthcoming IPCC report they will likely be updated to 33 over 100 years and 105 over 20 years. See Improved Attribution of Climate Forcing to Emissions. Drew Shindell, Science Magazine, 2009. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/326/5953/716.full
[vii] The Importance of Landfill Gas Capture and Utilization in the US. Council for Sustainable Use of Resources, Columbia University, 2010. http://www.scsengineers.com/Papers/Sullivan_Importance_of_LFG_Capture_and_Utilization_in_the_US.pdf
[viii] Livestock’s Long Shadow. http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM
[ix] Methane Emissions from Natural Gas Systems. Robert Howarth (Cornell University), Drew Shindell (NASA Goddard Space Institute) et al. Background Paper for the US National Climate Assessment. February 25, 2012. http://www.eeb.cornell.edu/howarth/Howarth%20et%20al.%20--%20National%20Climate%20Assessment.pdf
[x] Methane leaks erode green credentials of natural gas. Jeff Tollefson, Nature, Jan 2 2013 http://www.nature.com/news/methane-leaks-erode-green-credentials-of-natural-gas-1.12123
[xi] Venting and leaking of methane from shale gas development: response to Cathles et al.
Robert W. Howarth & Renee Santoro & Anthony Ingraffea. Climatic Change, Jan 10, 2012. http://www.eeb.cornell.edu/howarth/Howarthetal2012_Final.pdf. For a 6-minute video interview with Tony Ingraffea, see http://watch.bnn.ca/commodities/january-2013/commodities-january-18-2013/#clip846701
[xii] Measuring Fugitive Methane Emissions. Steven Hamburg, Environmental Defense Fund, Jan 4, 2013. http://blogs.edf.org/energyexchange/2013/01/04/measuring-fugitive-methane-emissions/
||Climate warming talk usually centers on carbon dioxide as the problem greenhouse gas. With good reason, as CO2 is the major culprit in human-induced climate chang as it is by far the most prevalent greenhouse gas, and moreover, its effects linger for generations. On the other hand, methane, CH4, is a much more potent greenhouse gas per molecule, and athough it breaks down relatively quickly, methane poses the highest danger as to "feedback loops" in which earth warming releases long-stored troves of methane.