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Methane emissions are among the greatest hurdles to the United States reducing its global carbon footprint.
And one of the greatest hurdles to reducing methane emissions is plugging leaks in the storage tanks, pipes, and other equipment that drillers and frackers use to extract and transport oil and gas.
"Something breaks for a few days and all of a sudden it's emitting 1,000 times more emissions," said David Lyon, a scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Lyon wasn't just referring to the massive methane plume that fouled the air outside Los Angeles for four months until it was stopped in February. He was thinking more about hundreds of less dramatic leaks.
Two years ago, flying in a helicopter and using an infrared camera — methane is invisible to the naked eye — Lyon discovered significant levels of methane were escaping from 4 percent of more than 8,000 oil and gas well pads in North Dakota, Wyoming, and other epicenters of America's recent boom in fossil fuel production.
Lyon's takeaway from the study, which he co-authored and recently published, was that while the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) includes estimates of small leaks in its tally of greenhouse gas emissions, it's missing the big ones.
The EPA is now figuring out how to include so-called "superemitters" in their statistics, according to the agency's recent annual inventory of US greenhouse gas emissions. But even without taking the leaks into consideration, the EPA's most recent numbers on the country's carbon emissions are already causing concern about methane.
The US spewed 1 percent more carbon into the air in 2014 than the year before, according to the EPA's inventory. The increase in methane was a bit higher — around 1.6 percent.
But in absolute terms, the number are nonetheless staggering. The oil and gas industry pumped a total of almost 9.8 million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere in 2014, according to the inventory.
The American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, disputed those numbers, saying the EPA used a "flawed new methodology" this year to tally methane emissions for 2014. Under the criteria the EPA used in last year's inventory, methane emissions from fracking and other natural gas extraction decreased by 11 percent compared to 2005 under the EPA's former criteria, the Institute said. The new methodology showed a decrease of less than 1 percent since 2005.
Under the new criteria, the EPA revised the oil and natural gas industry's methane emissions for 2013 upward, too, finding that the old estimates missed around 2.3 million metric tons of the gas.
The American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, disputed those numbers, saying 2014's methane emissions from fracking and other natural gas extraction decreased by 11 percent compared to 2005 under the EPA's former method of tallying releases of the gas. Now, using a "flawed new methodology," the decrease stands at less than 1 percent since 2005.
"This dramatic change should raise eyebrows," Kyle Isakower, the institute's vice president, said in a statement.
Agriculture, livestock releasing gas — yes, farting and belching cows — and wetlands, where decomposing vegetation emits methane, are the cause of higher levels of the gas since 2007, the Institute statement said, citing a recent study by researchers from the United States, Germany, and New Zealand.
But Isakower's statement added that, in any event, the industry gains nothing by losing valuable methane via leaks and other causes. "Let me point out that producers have every incentive to capture and sell methane, and we will continue to make substantial progress to reduce emissions voluntarily and under existing EPA regulations," he said.
It's imperative to get the amounts and origins of methane right because it turns out the gas is much worse for the environment than carbon dioxide — the chemical that has been in the crosshairs of environmentalists and regulators for years. Methane causes 84 times more global warming over the course of two decades than carbon dioxide after it's released into the atmosphere and 25 times more warming over the course of a century.
Methane's especially harmful toll has unfortunate implications for natural gas, including fracking, the much-ballyhooed industry that created boosted economies across the United States. Touted as a so-called "bridge fuel" that could burn relatively cleanly and help the world transition from coal and oil to renewable energies like solar and wind, natural gas has big downsides, said Rachel Richardson, fracking program director of Environment America.
"It's a bridge to nowhere," she said. "There are multiple steps of the fracking process that release methane. All of the other aspects of fracking negate any offsets from the burning of natural gas."
In a sign of methane's threat to the climate, last month President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a plan to cut oil-and-gas-sector methane emissions by as much as 45 percent below 2012 levels in the next nine years.
To that end, the EPA proposed rules in August that would compel companies to detect and find methane leaks in new, but not existing, oil and natural gas sites. Those rules are slated to come into effect in the coming months. The administration has also unveiled an initiative encouraging oil and gas companies to voluntarily reduce methane leakage.
At present, US law doesn't require oil and gas drillers to check for leaks. But some companies do. Southwestern Energy, for example, claims to have reduced leakage to less than 1 percent by using infrared cameras on its facilities to find leaks on its wells and other equipment, according to its latest corporate responsibility report.
If Southwestern Energy can detect leaks, there's no reason other companies can't, too, Mark Brownstein, vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund's climate and energy program, said. "The fact that industry has a methane emission problem now does not at all mean that it has to be this way," he said.
Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr