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Methane researchers in the field. Photo: EDF

A new study out today in the journal Science finds that methane emissions from the U.S. oil and gas industry are nearly 60% more than current EPA estimates.

Why it matters: With natural gas now the dominant fuel for generating electricity in the U.S., determining its environmental footprint is crucial. Although burning natural gas for energy emits fewer long-lived greenhouse gases, it does release considerable amounts of methane — a potent, short-lived global warming agent.

The background: During the past decade, as the U.S. energy market has increasingly favored natural gas as a power source over coal — think of the "fracking" boom that transformed the landscape in several states — numerous studies have attempted to estimate its climate change ramifications.

What they found: Using ground-based measurements as well as data gathered from aircraft, researchers found that the current leak rate from oil and gas operations in the U.S. is 2.3%, compared to the EPA's estimate of 1.4%.

  • The volume of natural gas lost during its production could fuel 10 million homes, according to an Environmental Defense Fund press release.
  • The study, which represents the largest effort yet to quantify methane emissions from oil and gas operations, states such gas is worth $2 billion, giving the energy industry an incentive to act.

The big picture: Methane can have more than 80 times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide during the first 20 years after its release, though it declines after that.

What they're saying: "Emissions across the supply chain are large enough that they essentially double the footprint of natural gas combustion over a 20-year timeframe,” Ramon Alvarez, the lead author of the study and associate chief scientist at EDF, told Axios.

  • Study co-author Amy Townsend-Small of the University of Cincinnati described to Axios via email how methane emissions could negate progress on CO2 cutbacks:
"In the U.S., carbon dioxide emissions have decreased recently for a few reasons, one of which is a reduced reliance on coal for electricity generation.  But if that is accompanied by an increase in methane emissions from the natural gas supply chain and/or other anthropogenic and natural sources, it could cause rapid climate warming with potentially devastating impacts."

Yes, but: Robert Howarth of Cornell University says the new study could suffer from "a severe underestimate of the importance of methane emissions from the U.S. natural gas sector." Howarth, who was not involved in the study, tells Axios:

  • The study relies too heavily on direct measurements taken at energy facilities and then extrapolated to the energy industry more broadly.
  • By inferring aggregate emissions across large areas using planes, satellites and monitoring towers, Howarth says emissions estimates are even higher.
  • He says it also ignores emissions that occur during drilling, which other studies have found to be particularly high.

The bottom line: With deregulation all the rage in Washington, it may be up to the energy industry to clamp down on their methane emissions due to the monetary incentive involved. BP recently set a methane target for the first time, and ExxonMobil said it would cut methane emissions and has come out in favor of federal regulation.

Go deeper

Dion Rabouin, author of Markets
33 mins ago - Economy & Business

First glimpse of the Biden market

Photo: Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images

Investors made clear what companies they think will be winners and which will be losers in President Joe Biden's economy on Wednesday, selling out of gun makers, pot purveyors, private prison operators and payday lenders, and buying up gambling, gaming, beer stocks and Big Tech.

What happened: Private prison operator CoreCivic and private prison REIT Geo fell by 7.8% and 4.1%, respectively, while marijuana ETF MJ dropped 2% and payday lenders World Acceptance and EZCorp each fell by more than 1%.

Mike Allen, author of AM
1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Biden-Harris, Day 1: What mattered most

President Joe Biden and first lady Dr. Jill Biden arrive at the North Portico of the White House. Photo: Alex Brandon-Pool/Getty Images

The Axios experts help you sort significance from symbolism. Here are the six Day 1 actions by President Biden that matter most.

Driving the news: Today, on his first full day, Biden translates his promise of a stronger federal response to the pandemic into action — starting with 10 executive orders and other directives, Caitlin Owens writes.

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Read: Pete Buttigieg's opening statement ahead of confirmation hearing

Pete Buttigieg, President Biden's nominee to be secretary of transportation, in December. Photo: Kevin Lamarque/AFP via Getty Images

Pete Buttigieg, President Biden's nominee to lead the Transportation Department, will tell senators he plans to prioritize the health and safety of public transportation systems during the pandemic — and look to infrastructure projects to rebuild the economy — according to a copy of his prepared remarks obtained by Axios.

Driving the news: Buttigieg will testify at 10 a.m. ET before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. He is expected to face a relatively smooth confirmation process, though GOP lawmakers may press him on "green" elements of Biden's transportation proposals.

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