Why cutting methane emissions is this year’s top energy challenge

Leave it to the rocket scientists to alert us to a really big climate challenge. That’s exactly what NASA has done. 

Using a satellite to measure atmospheric concentrations, NASA revealed an alarming increase in methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas that is now causing nearly one fourth of all global warming. As NASA explains, since just 2006, methane concentrations in the atmosphere have risen sharply and are currently causing an overbalance of more than 25 million tons per year. Of this overbalance, 17 million tons comes from the fossil fuel sector – or nearly 70 per cent of all new methane emissions. They warn that the problem is only getting worse.

Since 2005, there has been a massive increase in hydraulically fractured oil and gas production as well as natural gas wasted in unproductive flares and vents. These increases provide a smoking gun to the spiking concentrations. Reliable methane emissions estimates in the oil industry are lacking since measurements of partial combustion and vents are close to absent, and measurements of gas leakage from transport and distribution are scarce. 

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The Problem…

Simply put, the high levels of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are responsible for one of the most urgent climate problems we face today. Natural gas, long touted as a cleaner and more climate-friendly alternative to burning coal, is expected to continue to increase as market forces drive the replacement of coal. However, methane leaks of just three per cent from the natural gas supply chain double the carbon impact of gas, rendering it on par with coal from an environmental perspective. How does this bode for the future?

Outlook…

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) November 2017 World Energy Outlook provides two scenarios for future energy use to 2040. The “new policy scenario” achieves what we have today in GHG emissions. This scenario is a non-starter.

By contrast, the IEA’s “Sustainable Development Scenario” projects a significant CO2 downturn with major electric vehicle penetration, massive gains in efficiency, and enormous growth in renewables. This “Sustainable Development” scenario also makes the big assumption that, in the very near future, there will be negligible (near zero) methane leaks and vents from the oil and gas industry. However, too many scientifically based studies indicate that natural gas supply chain emits massive amounts of methane.

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Rocky Mountain Institute’s Global Race for Zero Methane Emissions Challenge is trying to fix this problem. The programme is aiming to significantly reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. There are encouraging signs of commitment by certain companies that recently signed a set of Methane Principles. However, this commitment must be followed up with real action in the form of thousands of methane abatement projects.

To make these projects happen faster, petroleum ministries and oil companies need to reexamine their 100-year-old business models and open up their protected markets to entrepreneurial forces. The industry needs to mobilise a “gold rush” of activity that is supported by national budgets, multilateral financing, and commercial banks. 

It is clear that in a carbon-constrained world, methane emissions are an intrinsic threat to the oil and gas industry. It is, therefore, imperative that this industry commits the resources to address this enormous risk to their business and, more importantly, our common future.


Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) transforms global energy use to create a clean, prosperous, and secure low-carbon future. Learn more about their work and their team here. 

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