White House Methane Madness

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Siegfried Fred Singer is an Austrian-born American physicist and emeritus professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia

Siegfried Fred Singer is an Aus­tri­an-born Amer­i­can physi­cist and emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of envi­ron­men­tal sci­ence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Virginia

Con­trary to per­sis­tent claims by envi­ron­men­tal­ists, Methane is not an impor­tant green­house gas (GHG); it has a total­ly neg­li­gi­ble impact on cli­mate.  Attempts to con­trol methane emis­sions make lit­tle sense; the just-announced [Jan 14] White House plan to reduce emis­sions by 40 to 45% by 2025 ignores well-estab­lished ‘text-book’ science.

Methane (chem­i­cal for­mu­la CH4) is the main com­po­nent of nat­ur­al gas.  It may tech­ni­cal­ly be defined as a green­house gas since it absorbs strong­ly in some por­tions of the infrared spec­trum; but its impact on cli­mate is insignif­i­cant.  Its atmos­pher­ic lev­el has been increas­ing because about half of the methane is pro­duced by process­es relat­ed to human activ­i­ties, such as cat­tle rais­ing, rice agri­cul­ture, land­fills, and the pro­duc­tion of oil and nat­ur­al gas; it is also released in coal min­ing and from leaky nat­ur­al gas pipelines.  The major non-human sources include swamps and bogs.

Some decades ago I pre­dict­ed [Nature 1971] anthro­pogenic methane pro­duc­tion and esti­mat­ed val­ues that are rough­ly in accord with mod­ern ones.  At that time, I was pri­mar­i­ly inter­est­ed in what hap­pens to methane once is dif­fus­es into the stratos­phere.  We found that the cur­rent human-asso­ci­at­ed pro­duc­tion of methane was equiv­a­lent to a fleet of 500 SSTs (super­son­ic trans­port air­craft) deposit­ing water vapor into the dry stratos­phere; these esti­mates have since been con­firmed by bal­loon-borne radioson­des.  Many will recall that in the ear­ly 1970s, fear of ozone deple­tion and increase in skin can­cers led to the demise of the US-SST project—although eco­nom­ic argu­ments already showed that at that time SSTs made lit­tle sense.

EPA plans to con­trol methane emissions

The White House now plans to impose a new set of reg­u­la­tions on the oil and nat­ur­al gas indus­tries, tar­get­ing emis­sions of methane — even as emis­sions plum­met.  Accord­ing to the Wall Street Jour­nal:

Over­all emis­sions fell 4.7% between 1990 and 2008 and 6.3% between 2008 and 2012, the most recent year an esti­mate is avail­able in the EPA’s green­house gas inven­to­ry. Nat­ur­al gas is the source of less than a third of the total, the next largest being “enteric fer­men­ta­tion,” or live­stock flat­u­lence. Those, er, emis­sions rose 2.3% over 1990–2012.”

The basis for pro­posed con­trol of methane is the usu­al shod­dy cli­mate sci­ence, as prop­a­gat­ed in var­i­ous UN-IPCC (Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change) reports.  These claim that the “glob­al warm­ing poten­tial” of a methane mol­e­cule is about 50 times that of CO2 — and that cli­mate forc­ing from growth of atmos­pher­ic methane is about 20% of CO2’s.  IPCC esti­mates are too high by as much as a fac­tor of 100.  They made two basic sci­en­tif­ic errors, as can be read­i­ly shown [see below].  They over­looked the fact that the infrared absorp­tion bands of atmos­pher­ic water vapor cov­er those of methane (as point­ed out by my physi­cist col­league Dr. Tom Shea­hen); one sim­ply can­not absorb the same radi­a­tion twice.  Fur­ther, the methane bands are locat­ed far from the peak of the sur­face heat emis­sion spec­trum, where there is lit­tle ener­gy avail­able to be absorbed.  I don’t know how IPCC got their wrong num­bers.  In truth, get­ting the right num­bers involves a lot of detailed work.

Details of methane impacts

While the cli­mate effects of methane have been vast­ly over­es­ti­mat­ed by the IPCC, the detailed cal­cu­la­tions are quite dif­fi­cult and require inputs of radi­a­tion data from satellites.

1.  The infrared absorp­tion bands of methane, at wave­lengths of rough­ly 3 and 8 microns, are over­lain by absorp­tion from water vapor.  But once the water vapor absorbs the radi­a­tion in these bands, there is real­ly noth­ing left for methane to absorb.  So the esti­mates of methane being 20–70 times more effec­tive per mol­e­cule than CO2 (as esti­mat­ed by IPCC), or that methane forc­ing is 20% of CO2 forc­ing, as shown in var­i­ous IPCC reports, makes absolute­ly no sense.

2.  How­ev­er, the effect of methane on cli­mate may not be quite zero.  Much depends on the alti­tude and lat­i­tude dis­tri­b­u­tion of water vapor, which is high­ly vari­able.  Imag­ine, for exam­ple, that all water vapor is con­cen­trat­ed near the earth’s sur­face and there­fore absorbs the emit­ted infrared from the land sur­face and ocean.  Methane, on the oth­er hand, has a life­time of about 8 years, long enough to be well mixed in the atmos­phere.  It will there­fore absorb the radi­a­tion emit­ted from the water vapor in the ‘bound­ary lay­er’ and pro­duce what amounts to a lim­it­ed amount of cli­mate forc­ing.  Sep­a­rate­ly, one must also con­sid­er the com­pli­cat­ed effects of the stratos­pher­ic water vapor cre­at­ed there by dif­fused methane.

Clear­ly, we should look at the radi­a­tion emit­ted into space in the appro­pri­ate infrared bands to see if there’s any trace of methane absorp­tion. For this pur­pose one can use data from the AIRS satel­lite, tak­en at var­i­ous times and loca­tions, such as over the trop­i­cal ocean, the Sahara desert, and the East- Antarc­tic plateau.

3.  Final­ly, we have to note that the emit­ted infrared from the sur­face is that of a “black body” with a tem­per­a­ture peak near 15 microns.  This means that the actu­al ener­gy con­tained in the methane absorp­tion bands is quite small, although not com­plete­ly neg­li­gi­ble.  But it cer­tain­ly does not amount to 20%, as claimed by the IPCC.

Lit­tle need for methane control

So there are good rea­sons to doubt that methane, although (tech­ni­cal­ly) a green­house gas, has impor­tant cli­mate con­se­quences.  This will come as a bit­ter dis­ap­point­ment to envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions that have been revving up to impose emis­sion con­trols on methane, once they have imposed con­trols on CO2.  It would mean the end to all sorts of non­sen­si­cal schemes, such as con­trol­ling the diet of cows.

On the oth­er hand, the anthro­pogenic increase of methane does lead to an increase in stratos­pher­ic water vapor.  Although slight, it may have pos­si­ble, minute cli­mate effects.  But more impor­tant is its effect on stratos­pher­ic ozone; this is some­thing that should be con­sid­ered by the Mon­tre­al Pro­to­col and all those who wor­ry about ozone deple­tion.  Note, how­ev­er, that accord­ing to UN reports there has been no evi­dence for any stratos­pher­ic deple­tion since 1993.


Accord­ing to the WSJ edi­to­r­i­al, from 2008–2012 the “U.S. became the world’s nat­ur­al-gas leader, with pro­duc­tion increas­ing by near­ly four­fold since 2008. The U.S. added 600,000 miles of gas pipeline, a 30% increase, util­i­ties sub­sti­tut­ed gas for coal on a mas­sive scale, and the econ­o­my grew. Methane emis­sions nonethe­less fell.”

The edi­to­r­i­al goes on to suggest:

The real rea­son methane has become an obses­sion of the green lob­by is that it some­times leaks when extract­ing or trans­port­ing oil and espe­cial­ly nat­ur­al gas. Thus methane [con­trol] can be a pre­text for inter­fer­ing with and rais­ing the costs of drilling.” 

So in addi­tion to a sim­ple ’pow­er-grab’ that expands EPA’s reg­u­la­to­ry reach, we have here an attempt to crip­ple the one bright spot of US ener­gy pro­duc­tion.  Just who are these EPA folks work­ing for – and where is their science?

S. Fred Singer is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia and direc­tor of the Sci­ence & Envi­ron­men­tal Pol­i­cy Project.  His spe­cial­ty is atmos­pher­ic and space physics.  An expert in remote sens­ing and satel­lites, he served as the found­ing direc­tor of the US Weath­er Satel­lite Ser­vice and, more recent­ly, as vice chair of the US Nation­al Advi­so­ry Com­mit­tee on Oceans & Atmos­phere.  He is a Senior Fel­low of the Heart­land Insti­tute and the Inde­pen­dent Insti­tute.  He co-authored the NY Times best-sell­er Unstop­pable Glob­al Warm­ing: Every 1500 years.  In 2007, he found­ed and has chaired the NIPCC (Non­govern­men­tal Inter­na­tion­al Pan­el on Cli­mate Change), which has released sev­er­al sci­en­tif­ic reports [See NIPCCreport.org].