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The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected in the coming days to lift controls on the release of methane that is emitted from leaks and flares in oil and gas wells, in what the Trump administration says is needed to free the oil and gas industry from ‘crippling regulations’. 

The EPA Methane Rollback

The new EPA rule eliminates federal requirements that oil and gas companies must install technology to detect and fix methane leaks from wells, pipelines and storage sites. 

Andrew Wheeler, the head of the EPA, made public a rollback draft of the methane rule, saying at the time that it ‘removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry’.

The move comes at a time when companies are suffering from decreasing prices and falling demand driven by the COVID-19-related economic slowdown. However, this revised rule has been planned for more than a year. 

Environmentalists have condemned the move, calling it another blow by Trump to the planet, following dozens of reversals on rules meant to protect the planet from warming further, including the US withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. 

In April, the EPA weakened rules on the release of toxic chemicals from coal-fired power plants, loosened curbs on tailpipe pollution and chose not to strengthen a regulation on industrial soot emissions that have been linked to respiratory diseases. 

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In July, Trump weakened the National Environmental Policy Act, limiting public review of federal infrastructure projects to speed up the permitting process for freeways, power plants and pipelines. 

However, this and other regulatory changes put forth by the Trump administration in the latter half of 2020 could be undone in the first half of 2021 if Joe Biden wins the White House and Democrats take control of the Senate. This is because of a rule that gives lawmakers 60 legislative days to overturn major new regulations issued by federal agencies. In the early days of the Trump administration, the procedure was used to undo 14 Obama-era rules. 

Oil and gas companies have had mixed responses to the move. Some major companies have spoken out against the weakening of methane regulations, but smaller oil companies are expected to applaud the rule as a relief when many are struggling to survive. 

While methane stays in the atmosphere for a shorter period of time, it has 80 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years in the atmosphere. It currently makes up about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US. A large portion of this comes from the oil and gas industry, although other sources include agriculture. 

The first active leak of methane from the sea floor in Antarctica has been discovered by scientists. Worryingly, the scientists also found that the microbes that normally consume the gas before it reaches the atmosphere had only congregated in small numbers after five years, allowing the methane to escape. What does this mean for the planet in its mission to mitigate the climate crisis?

The Antarctica Methane Release

The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, reports the discovery of the methane seep at a site called Cinder Cones in McMurdo Sound. The site is 10 metres deep with a 70 metre long patch of white microbial mats. This seep was first spotted by divers in 2011 and scientists returned to the site in 2016 to study it in detail, before beginning laboratory work.

The researchers are unsure of the reason for the emergence of this new seep, but believe that it is ‘probably not global heating’ as the Ross Sea where it was found has yet to warm significantly. They are most concerned, however, about the delay of the microbes in consuming the methane, which current climate models do not take into account. Andrew Thurber, from Oregon State University, who led the research, says, “The delay in methane consumption is the most important finding. It is not good news. It took more than five years for the microbes to begin to show up and even then there was still methane rapidly escaping from the sea floor.” 

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However, Thurber says that while very little is known about the Antarctic methane cycle, the new seep provides a natural laboratory for further research.

The source of the methane, which was found to be dissolved in the water instead of bubbling, is probably decaying algae deposits buried under sediments and is likely to be thousands of years old. The slow growth of microbes at the site means that methane is certainly leaking into the atmosphere. Thurber believes that it may be ‘five to 10 years’ before a community of microbes becomes fully adapted and starts consuming methane. 

Antarctica is known as the ‘black hole’ of research in understanding the Earth’s methane cycle, as it is generally a difficult place to work, according to scientists. Vast amounts of methane are thought to be stored under the sea floor around Antarctica which is released from frozen underwater stores or permafrost regions. This process is one of the key tipping points of the climate crisis as methane is a greenhouse gas that is far more potent than carbon and could have catastrophic impacts on the planet and the environment.

The team says that this discovery may not be an anomaly, and they wonder if these features are more common than we think around Antarctica, but are rarely stumbled upon. 

A recent study found that the South Pole has warmed at a rate three times the global average over the past 30 years, prompting fears that methane could be released in larger quantities as the oceans in the region warms. 

The continent also experienced unprecedented heat last summer and in February, recorded a temperature of 20.75°C, Antarctica’s highest temperature in recorded history. This has exacerbated the rapid melting of the Thwaites Glacier, an unusually large and vast ice sheet in Antarctica that is nicknamed the “Doomsday Glacier” for the devastating consequences it could have on global sea level rise. 

While this methane discovery may be a natural phenomenon and not necessarily caused by human activity, the effects of it will surely be worse than if humanity mitigated its greenhouse gas emissions. As natural feedback loops are initiated, this has never been more important. 

Global emissions of methane have hit the highest levels on record, according to an international team of scientists. Animal farming and fossil fuels are the largest contributors to this increase, highlighting the need for mitigation in both these areas. 

The team’s findings come from the latest update to the Global Methane Budget, an international collaboration that estimates sources and sinks of methane around the world. The Budget says that since 2000, discharges of the greenhouse gas have risen more than 50 million tons a year. 

More than half of the methane in the atmosphere now comes from human activities. Ranching, agriculture and landfills make up 60% of this, while the fossil fuel industry makes up the rest.

In 2017- the most recent year for which a full budget has been produced- shows that the planet’s atmosphere absorbed nearly 600 million tons of methane, around 9% higher than 2000-2006, when levels were more stable.

Rob Jackson, a professor at the Stanford University School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, in California, chairs the Global Carbon Project and led one of the papers. He says that human activities since the Industrial Revolution have increased the amount of methane in the atmosphere by 2.6 times, compared with 1.7 times for carbon dioxide. He adds that since methane is more potent than CO2, it should be a focus of efforts to cut emissions. 

“CO2 is still the beast to slay but warming from methane is the next most important. Acting aggressively on methane can buy us time to address CO2 and shave half a degree off the peak temperature,” he said. “I am optimistic about opportunities to find methane super-emitters, using drones and satellites. But it is harder to cut emissions from a billion burping cows and a billion sheep, where dietary choices and manure management matter.”

Regionally, the biggest increases in the levels of methane- of 10 to 15 million tons a year- were in Asia, Africa and Oceania, largely due to farming. In the US, most of the 4.5 million ton rise over the past 10 years has been attributed to fracking and other forms of oil and gas drilling. Europe was the only continent to show a decline due to reductions in agricultural emissions. The Arctic also saw little change, suggesting that fears of methane being released from thawing permafrost had not been realised up to 2017.

The study found that methane sinks have increased, from around 546 billion tons in 2000-2006 to 571 billion tons in 2017. Methane stays in the atmosphere for an average of nine years and it is typically destroyed through chemical reactions that produce CO2 and water.

The authors have urged rapid action from governments to stabilise emissions. 

Global Methane Budget

The global methane budget provides a way of tracking where methane emissions are coming from, how much is taken up through sinks and how much is left in the atmosphere. The budget is an initiative from the Global Carbon Project which aims to develop a complete picture of the global carbon cycle. The Project provides an annual update on global carbon emissions. However, researchers who work with the Project say that an annual update is more complicated for methane, whereby the scientific community is still ‘finding its feet with the methane budget’ and because it requires time-consuming model runs. As a result, the methane budget is updated every two to three years. 

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methane levels
The global methane budget for the year 2017 (Source: Jackson et al. (2020)).

To estimate sources and sinks, the methane budget uses two approaches: first, which focuses on methane emissions at the source, using data submitted by individual countries to the UN and combining this with model simulations of other sources of methane, such as wetlands, wildfires and termites and second, observations of methane concentrations on a global scale are observed to estimate where they originated.

With global temperatures on the rise, scientists are concerned that the thawing of the Arctic permafrost will release alarming levels of methane into the atmosphere. However, new research has found a bacteria that ‘eats’ methane, preventing much of the gas from entering the atmosphere.

Methane is a greenhouse gas that is more potent than carbon dioxide, as it is much more efficient at trapping radiation. Despite its lifetime in the atmosphere being comparatively shorter, pound for pound, the impact of methane on global warming over a 100 year period is 25 times greater than carbon dioxide. Globally, it has been found that 50-65% of total methane emissions originate from human activity, namely through the use of fossil fuels, landfills and agricultural practices.

Methane-consuming Bacteria

Recently, a study published in Natural Climate Change has discovered high-affinity methanotrophs (HAMs, otherwise known as methane-oxidising bacteria), in Arctic mineral soils. More specifically, methanotrophs are a unique type of bacteria capable of using methane as their only source of energy. They are often found in environments like peatlands, rice paddies, hot springs and mud pots. As they are key players in the Earth’s natural methane cycle, where methane produced in soils remains trapped between soil particles, methanotrophs can thus consume the gas, preventing the release of methane into the atmosphere. In wetland environments, it has been estimated that around 40-60% of the methane produced is consumed by these microbes before escaping into the atmosphere. Therefore, these bacteria are of great interest to researchers studying global warming. It has been suggested that methanotrophs could potentially decrease overall net methane emissions, due to the increased productivity of the high-affinity methanotrophs. As such, net greenhouse gas emissions coming from the Arctic might end up being much smaller than previously modelled estimates. 

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These findings are led by scientists QianLai Zhuang and Youmi Oh from Purdue University in Indiana. According to their research, whilst permafrost thaw increases methane production in Arctic wetlands as a result of methanogens, these organic-rich soils only comprise 13% of the total land area. The remaining 87% of the region is dominated by the mineral-rich soils that support HAMs.

Thus, researchers have argued this might explain why observed methane emissions have averaged 5 to 10 gigatons less per year than previous models have predicted. 

As Youmi Oh states, “We do believe that Arctic methane emissions will increase by the end of this century as other studies have shown, but the net increase to the atmosphere will be much smaller once upland methanotrophs are taken into consideration.” She also adds, “It was even possible in our simulation that net emissions decrease because high-affinity methanotrophs survive better than methanogens in response to warming.” More specifically, methanogens are microorganisms that produce methane as a result of energy metabolism. They are generally found in places where oxygen is lacking, such as underground, wetlands, oceans and even in intestines of all kinds of animals. 

Although smaller net methane emissions are a good thing, Zhuang and Oh both warn that this would depend on higher global temperatures. As Zhuang says, “it’s important to remember that this is only one part of the planet. It doesn’t account for greenhouse gases produced in other regions.” 

As of now, the researchers’ new model includes the role of HAMs as well as other variables such as microbial responses to a warmer Arctic. Zhuang and Oh will continue to monitor Arctic methane emissions in order to better improve their current model to provide more accurate projections. 

Other studies have also observed a huge spike in methane emissions in places like the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS), which were nine times greater than the average global atmospheric concentration. There have been concerns about the effect of the release of even a small fraction of methane which could trigger positive feedback loops, where methane coming from melting permafrost could trap more heat in the environment, furthering this thawing of thawing. 

In Professor Igor Semiletov’s own words, “This goes beyond geo-political considerations… We need to think about how to combine our efforts to study this, because it affects everyone.” 

Featured image by: Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Scientists from the Tomsk Polytechnic University in Russia recently recorded the highest-ever flares of methane emissions- up to nine times the average global atmospheric concentration- in the air over the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS).  

The average surface temperature of the earth has increased by about 0.9°C since the late 19th century, driven in part by man-made emissions of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane. 

Why does methane trap more heat than carbon dioxide?

Although methane accounts for less than a quarter (16%) of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is roughly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of absorbing heat and contributes 25% of man-made global warming as of 2013.

Permafrost systems are carbon-rich soils that remain completely frozen for at least two years straight. 17% of the Earth’s exposed land surface is underlain by permafrost. The thermal state of these systems is sensitive to changing climatic conditions and in particular to rising air temperatures. Studies have found that the Arctic permafrost will thaw due to rising temperatures and once thawed, soil microbes convert the organic carbon in the permafrost soil into greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. This process could amplify global climate change. 

In October, scientists from the Tomsk Polytechnic University in Russia recorded the highest-ever amounts of methane in the air over the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) during a 40-day research voyage led by chief scientist Igor Semiletov. 

The methane emissions they observed were up to nine times greater than the average global atmospheric concentration. “Nobody has detected these concentrations,” Semiletov said.

The scientists surveyed 60 sites across the ESAS known to have had methane emissions from underwater permafrost in the past. Each emission site varies in size, ranging from 100 square metres to a square kilometre. The water at these sites looks as though it’s boiling as methane bubbles to the surface. Researchers collected samples of the air above the bubbling columns of methane to determine the amount being released into the Arctic Ocean. 

During previous expeditions, the team had recorded methane concentrations of 3-5 parts per million at these sites. On this trip however, they recorded methane concentrations of up to 16 parts per million, well above the average global atmospheric concentration of 1.7 parts per million. 

“The methane emissions, which look like torches or flares, are all increasing,” Semiletov said.

Their discovery does not come as a surprise. In 2010, Professor Semiletov and his colleague Natalia Shakhova made waves with their paper, which showed that methane trapped beneath the underwater permafrost of the ESAS was leaking into the Arctic Ocean. 

Specifically, they found that in this area, more than 80% and 50% of bottom and surface waters respectively were supersaturated with methane, comparable to methane emissions found in the entire world’s oceans. 

The scientists attribute the sub-sea thawing to changes in thermal interactions in the ocean, which could be intensified by global warming. These interactions include the release of geothermal heat derived within the sub-surface of the earth, as well as air-sea heat fluxes, which transfer heat from the atmosphere to the ocean. 

Professor Shakhova warns that the release of only a small fraction of the methane held in the ESAS could trigger further abrupt climate warming via positive feedback mechanisms; methane released from thawing permafrost traps heat in the atmosphere, which in turn accelerates thawing. 

“The very shallow water column and weakening permafrost could lead to the doubling of methane in the atmosphere in a matter of decades,” she said in a statement.

Moving forward, Professor Semiletov calls for a consolidated effort to monitor methane emissions across the Arctic Ocean in a bid to mitigate its effects on global warming. “It’s crucially important to study the change in size of the seeps…we need to think about how to combine our efforts to study this, because it affects everyone,” he says.  

This is the first of two parts in an Earth.Org investigation of methane emissions in the polar regions. See December 23rd‘s article, ‘What Satellite Imagery Tells Us About Methane Emissions in Greenland’.  

Featured image by: Brocken Inaglory 

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