16 October 2009

$24 Billion Blowing in the Wind

Several days ago the NYT had an interesting article about methane explaining that,
. . . some three trillion cubic feet of methane leak into the air every year, with Russia and the United States the leading sources, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s official estimate. (This amount has the warming power of emissions from over half the coal plants in the United States.)
According to NaturalGas.org "In its purest form, such as the natural gas that is delivered to your home, it is almost pure methane." Natural gas has an energy content of about 1 QUAD (quadrillion BTU) per trillion cubic feet. This means that the three trillion cubic feet referenced in the New York Times story is equal to about 3 QUADs. In 2008 the US consumed about 24 QUADs of natural gas, so the escaped methane worldwide is about 10-15% of total US consumption (domestic methane escape as a percentage of US consumption is about 1-1.5%).

At $8 per 1,000 cubic feet three QUADs of natural gas equates to about $24 billion. So if I've done my math right, uncaptured methane globally is like letting $24 billion float up into the air. How high would the price have to increase before eliminating that 1-1.5% inefficiency in the US becomes economically desirable? Or are there other obstacles than cost? If it was dollar bills floating away rather than methane molecules I'd have to think that somebody would be building a big net.


  1. Roger,
    I don't know if the article breaks down the different points of "methane leaks", but as I recall the costs and possible profitability of capture vary quite widely, depending on where the leaks are (e.g. gas pipeline vs. oil well).

  2. Oops! From the second paragraph, "acre-feet" is a unit used to measure water volume (the amount of water it takes to cover an acre one foot deep, just over 325,000 gallons). I think you mean cubic feet?

  3. I wonder if these EPA finding should be factored into this paper:Jaramillo, P., W. M. Griffin, and H.S. Matthews. 2007. Comparative life-cycle air emissions
    of coal, domestic natural gas, LNG, and SNG for electricity generation. Environmental Science & Technology, Vol. 41, No. 17, 6290-6296

    It can be downloaded here.
    If the EPA thinks there is more Methane being released than originally thought, then the total GHG footprint is larger than this paper came up with.

  4. -2-KC

    Thanks. I plead pre-coffee ;-) Now fixed.

  5. Roger; I am not sure of those numbers. Besides being 24 billion blowin' in the wind, 3 trillion cu ft would equal nearly 2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

    Also, the atmospheric methane content does not reflect this amount relased every year.

  6. But if we assume these numbers are near correct a possible contribution to reducing GHG's would be to regulate industrial sources of methane. Methane is less ubiquitous than carbon and more powerful (20x?) GHG's-possibly easier to regulate. One option would be to make some of these voluntary programs required.

  7. What about all the methane that is flared? There are areas like the Horn of Africa where there are no facilities to capture, store and transport methane so it's just burned. Qatar was building gas to liquids plants so at least something useful could be done with the methane. Last I heard, the first plant wasn't working very well and the second had been delayed because of the drop in oil price. IIRC, the quantities burned there are much larger than you are talking about here. Supposedly, you can see the light of the flares from orbit.

  8. More information on gas flaring can be found at the Global Gas Flaring Reduction site. According to the information there, ~5 trillion cubic feet of methane was flared in 2008. The US contribution to that total was 0.08 trillion cubic feet, 15th on the list. Russia was first on the list at 1.4 trillion cubic feet. Nigeria and Iran were 2 and 3 and the total from those three is about half the global total.

  9. Methane is alraedy highly regulated, at least in OECD countries.

    I have several patents in methane control, and these pocesses were designed to control individual releases of as little as 1 standard cubic meter per day. As mandated by law.

    While there was a spike in CH4 in 2007, the levels have since lowered, and the longer term trend is flat or even negative.

    Dlugokencky, E. J., et al., 2009. Observational constraints on recent increases in the atmospheric CH4 burden. Geophysical Research Letters, 36, L18803,

  10. I don't think it's regulated here in the US. For example, methane from underground coal mines is sometimes vented directly and not even flared.

  11. Per 9 above- "Why the continued interest?" as RC would say, in a gas which has apparently stabilized?

  12. The economics and overall footprint of methane recovery has to be analyzed carefully. As deepclimate pointed out in #1, the economics vary widely depending on the source. There's a reason that Russia, Nigeria and Iran as well as a lot of other oil producing countries flare gas from their oil wells. It's too expensive to do anything else. Building pipelines, storage and distribution facilities isn't free. Liquified natural gas vents constantly to the atmosphere during storage unless you refrigerate it, which has an energy cost. There's also an energy cost to methane recovery. Like the cloth vs. disposable diaper controversy, it's not at all clear that you are actually reducing greenhouse footprint if it takes more energy or costs more to recover the methane than the energy value or dollar value of the recovered methane.

  13. De Witt-
    if we are talking about GHG reduction, I agree that we would have to compare the amount of GHGs under a recovery scenario, but you added "or costs more." If it costs more to recover the methane than the dollar value, that is frequently the case in reducing pollution- recovering most pollutants costs more than the dollar value of the pollutant.
    To be more rigorous, I think one way of GHG reduction prioritizing would be to compare the total reduction in carbon dioxide equivalents produced by a policy action (such as regulation) compared to the cost. We could, as a society start with the ones with the greatest reduction/cost ratio and work our way as far as we need to to achieve the desired level of GHGs.