We need to talk about methane

Redwood Comment
Published:  04 October, 2022
Credit: ESOlex/Shutterstock.com

Mike Redwood brings us back to the conversation around methane following some alarming environmental news.

We need to return to the discussion about methane. The holes that appeared in two pipelines in the Baltic recently tell us that undersea cables and pipelines for energy and communications are now fair game in warfare. They also remind us that natural gas is all about enormous quantities of methane.

The Baltic pipelines were not in use and will soon be empty, but they were full. So, up to 778 million standard cubic meters of methane gas were likely released from the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, according to the Danish Energy Agency. Apparently, that is close to a third of Denmark’s greenhouse gas emissions for the entire year of 2020. As an industry dependent upon the natural environment, we should remember that this is all from fossil fuel, so 100% manmade. “Anthropogenic” as the scientists call it.  

Methane that comes from natural sources such as swamps, termites, growing rice and livestock, which have always been in steady balance with the environment as part of the carbon cycle, is classed as “biogenic”, although for various reasons some charts show rice and livestock as manmade. This is hard to support given that the U.S. had over twice as many roaming buffalo in history compared to cattle today and rice and livestock have been around for thousands of years.

Countries refuse to do any measuring

Anthropogenic emissions began with the start of industry, since the extraction of coal, oil and gas all release methane. We are told it is difficult to measure escapes so data is poor, but it looks more like aggressive avoidance than cost or difficulty that leaves us without data, or falsely low estimates. There are entire countries who have not moved beyond economic dependence on producing fossil fuels wandrefuse to do any measuring.

Where clouds do not interfere, satellites can now help. All underground coal mines produce methane, which can cause explosions if it builds up. This methane can be collected or vented via oxidation if the mine owners wish, but this is rare. Around 2020, GHGSat discovered the biggest single source leak, since it started in 2016, coming from the Russian Raspadskaya coal mine in Kemerovo Oblast. The company believed it is likely to add about 25% to the total emissions when all the coal is burned.

Other satellite measurements have shown immense releases of methane gas from the Australian Bowen Basin coal region, with some mines described as “super-emitters”. The Australian government argued that satellite data was not precise enough to be used in this way, but it is now generally agreed that even facilities that have been releasing data have been wildly under-reporting.

The issue of methane from fossil fuel extraction is highlighted by Russia’s badly maintained infrastructure, including production facilities and pipelines, making it notoriously leaky. Leaks which Russia will not mention so they can continue to sell large quantities of coal, oil and gas.

Big leaks like that found a mile or two from the COP26 Conference centre last year and the huge Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Facility leak in California from October 2015 through February 2016 demonstrate that we are mostly lucky to learn about huge emissions caused by errors, poor maintenance on deliberate hiding of information.

Shale oil

Shale oil is another major emitter where measuring is non-existent or erratic, and it seems the very small sites can release up to 12 times the average.

With countries rushing to enlarge their sources of fossil fuel for national security reasons, measuring and reporting will not improve. This creates all manner of problems for COP27 next month when it reviews the progress of the COP26 Global Methane Pledge to cut methane emissions by 30% between 2020 and 2030.

Without question, livestock will be again highlighted for blame. While fossil fuel businesses avoid measuring their own emissions, they have spent a fortune campaigning to transfer the blame elsewhere. With the support of animal rights bodies, cattle and other livestock are the targets.

Enteric fermentation

Cows release methane due to a process called enteric fermentation that takes place in the rumen (located in the first stomach) during digestion. Slurry produced when they are kept indoors for climate or husbandry reasons can also produce methane. Campaigns advocating for plant-based diets cite solving climate warming as one of the foremost reasons to forego meat without attempting to distinguish between biogenic and fossil fuel carbon. They ignore the roles livestock play in improving grassland quality, protecting biodiversity, providing complete protein and utilising non-arable land.

As current action in California and elsewhere demonstrates, slurry is best used to generate power, or even to make green hydrogen. And the amount of methane cattle produce can be reduced dramatically by small adaptations to their feed. Overall, as history has shown, stable livestock populations lead to steady levels of atmospheric methane and, over the past 20 years, world cattle herds have been stable or slightly declining.

There is lots of room for further improvements with more efficient agriculture in the developing world, but without destroying the livelihoods of subsistence and nomadic farmers who get grouped into the “enemy” by attacks from animal rights and fossil fuel groups.

Equally, it helps no one to legislate to reduce livestock in well-managed areas such as the Netherlands and Ireland only to see the red meat and milk production shifted to areas where there is little or no interest in improving husbandry.

Time to update the leather manifesto    

The leather industry acknowledges that our raw material is a by-product here, and no one keeps livestock for leather. Recent years have shown hides and skins to often be a worthless waste, costly to dispose of, but it is still our battle. Farmers are our friends and they offer us traceability, links to benefit nature and biodiversity and a material that is at once ancient and contemporary, historical yet modern, traditional and cutting edge, craft yet advanced nanotechnology.

The real problem to be addressed is methane from coal, oil and gas and what comes from the enormous mountains of landfills created by careless consumption. And the leather industry has better update its COP26 leather manifesto to prepare for more unwarranted attacks at COP27.

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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