Methane: The other important greenhouse gas

Methane infographic

By emitting just a little bit of methane, we're greatly accelerating the rate of climatic change.

Steve Hamburg EDF Chief Scientist

Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is the gas we hear most about, but it isn't the only dangerous greenhouse gas. Methane also can significantly damage the atmosphere. 

Much more potent

Video: Methane emissions contribute to climate change, but economical solutions exist.

Methane is the primary component of natural gas, which, when burned, emits less CO2 than coal. But unburned — when it is vented or leaked directly into the atmosphere — methane is far more potent, packing a much bigger punch over the first 20 years after it's emitted.

In other words, methane has the potential to undo much of the greenhouse gas benefits we stand to gain from switching from coal to natural gas. An aging pipeline infrastructure and a rapid expansion in natural gas development are just two reasons methane emissions are increasing.

It's not expensive to fix

The good news? Fixing methane leaks isn't financially burdensome.

An EDF-commissioned analysis by an independent consulting firm found that by adopting available emissions-control technologies, industry could cut methane emissions by 40 percent below projected 2018 levels at a cost of less than one cent per thousand cubic feet of produced natural gas.

In fact, the most economical methane reduction opportunities would save industry a combined $164 million per year.

Two examples of ways that industry could make changes: First, by shifting to low-emitting valves, or pneumatics, that control routine operations; and second, by improving leak detection and repair. 

But fully addressing methane emissions requires us raising the bar on detection, as you can’t fix what you don’t measure. That’s why we’re tapping tech innovators to invent the next-generation of low-cost air pollution monitors to help companies identify methane leaks in real-time. Read more about the request for proposal.

"Some of these solutions have a positive payback because sales of the captured methane more than offset the costs of the technology," says EDF senior analyst Sean Wright. "This is actually a smart investment for companies."

More work to be done

Meanwhile, we're also focusing our efforts on filling an important data gap: Studying the magnitude of the nation's methane emissions problem. We've launched a series of landmark studies to hone in on where and how much methane is emitted as gas travels from the well to its final destination.

But lowering methane emissions alone is not enough. We must also address the other major causes of climate change: deforestation and the burning of traditional fossil fuels, like coal. 

Standing strong on climate

Our work on methane is just one part of our broader strategy to lower emissions.

See how we're fighting climate change. »