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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

Updated 8 hours ago - Technology

From Malcolm X to "Free Britney," new media shapes the justice system

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

True crime documentaries, podcasts and social media campaigns are bringing new attention to real-world legal proceedings — and are often affecting the outcome.

Why it matters: New media platforms can instantly put a national spotlight on cases that have long been forgotten or buried under red tape.

Updated 10 hours ago - Health

The next big bottleneck in the global vaccination effort

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

The world still needs more coronavirus vaccines, but an additional bottleneck has emerged in many low-income countries: They need help getting shots in arms.

Why it matters: Increasing vaccination rates across the world is both a humanitarian necessity and the best way to prevent dangerous new variants from emerging, but it increasingly requires complex problem-solving.

Updated 11 hours ago - Health

COVID-19 Omicron variant cases identified in Europe, U.K.

People wearing masks walk in London on Nov. 25. Photo: Li Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images

Health officials in the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany announced on Saturday that they've detected the first known cases of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant.

Why it matters: The discoveries come as the world scrambles to respond to concerns over the new variant, discovered in South Africa earlier this week.

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