The methane gas bomb — a climate emergency


In a new article from Independent Australia, Dr David Shearman discusses the dangers that methane gas is having on our environment and ways we can prevent further damage.

Labor support for gas pipelines in Queensland and NT will greatly harm attempts to control both national and international greenhouse emissions by facilitating the production and export of gas.

“Climate Emergency” is used by many community and professional organisations to describe their anxiety-fostered need for action. But the most urgent threat right now is the expansion of the gas industry, which is leaking methane into the atmosphere.

Why is methane so dangerous? Methane as a greenhouse gas is measured in carbon dioxide equivalents. Carbon dioxide warms the Earth over centuries, but methane will pack all its warming punch in the next two decades. It is around 85 times more potent than carbon dioxide in raising the temperature of the Earth and is a candidate for causing the rapid rise in extreme weather events which are increasing faster than would be expected from the slow rise in carbon dioxide. Discarded plastic might emit climate-warming methane gas as they break down, according to a new study. 

In the technical words of the recent IPCC report: ‘Limiting warming to 1.5°C implies reaching net zero CO2 emissions globally around 2050 and concurrent deep reductions in emissions of non-CO2 forcers, particularly methane (high confidence).’ The main “forcer” is methane and, to a lesser extent, black carbon (soot). Ozone and manufactured fluorinated gases are also potent forcers.

Methane is released from wetlands and cows burping due to fermentation in their guts and from forest fires when methane is released from trees and soil. Human flatus produces only a little methane. But we know that most of existing atmospheric methane and its steady rise since 2006 is due to fossil fuels.

Using carbon isotopes of carbon molecules, NASA investigators have shown differences in the methane that arises from the fossil fuel industry and from fires and from wetlands. The methane from the gas and oil industry is increasing year by year and it arises from leaks during the mining process and transport of methane.

What is the solution to this burgeoning disaster?

We must replace gas with clean hydrogen energy. A green hydrogen society is now in place in the isolated storm-riven, resourceful community of the Orkney Islands, North of Scotland. Tidal and wave power provides the electricity for electrolysis of water to produce green hydrogen to run their transport system and energy requirements. Soon there will be a green hydrogen ferry to the mainland. World's fastest #hydrogen sensor could pave the way for clean hydrogen energy.

In Australia, rooftop solar and a microgrid will supply electricity to produce the hydrogen as proposed by Daintree Renewable Energy Inc for the isolated Daintree region. It is supported by the Federal Government. This development could be applied to much of sun-soaked regional Australia to bring self-sufficiency, local employment, cheap energy and transport fuel. Its promulgation would enable the LNP in Queensland to move into this century and stop banging on about gas and coal.

With oncoming ravages of climate change, Australia has to become sustainable and the resourceful farming and regional communities must be empowered to lead the way because they have stewardship of land, food and water without suffering the health threats from wells. Electricity from burning gas can be used to produce hydrogen fuel (“blue hydrogen”) but burning the gas produces CO2, making this a futile and harmful exercise. Methane leaks occur throughout the production processes.

Reviewing all the evidence on the harms of the gas industry, Doctors for the Environment Australia believes methane leaks from existing mines should be controlled by regulation and strict monitoring paid for by the industry. Currently, inspection for methane leaks at thousands of wellheads is often perfunctory. Leaks at all other points in the transport and use of gas must be identified and controlled. At present, there are so many leaks that their control would significantly raise the cost of gas so they are conveniently overlooked. In the U.S., several studies find leaks much greater than expected from equipment and pneumatic devices at the wellhead, collecting and processing facilities, transportation and storage. Leaks at 300 active and 200 abandoned coal mines are the source of about 10% of US methane emissions.

Research also found large tailpiece leaks from methane gas-powered vehicles and studies in towns showed important emissions from gas meters, furnaces, boilers and hot water heaters. Leaks from gas-powered power stations are up to 120 times official estimates At COP24 in December 2018, Environment Minister Melissa Price said: “Australia is using our natural resources to provide the low emissions fuels of the future. Our Liquefied Natural gas (LNG) exports could save importing countries around 130 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent a year.”

A very clever statement because the methane from leaks is already in the atmosphere at the time of export and largely unrecorded in Australia’s emissions. Qatar, the U.S. and Australia, some of the world’s wealthiest nations and with the greatest per capita greenhouse emissions, lead the world in gas production and export for a cash bonanza fuelled by avoidance of full-cost accounting of the product.

It’s one big methane fart into the face of humanity attempting to control climate change. For action in the U.S. we have to wait for the end of Trumpism. In Australia, both major Parties and three states are totally supportive of gas development. Labor, at least, recognises the need for tighter regulation.

Doctors for the Environment Australia Policy and Position state no new gas mines, not only because of the threat from gas as a climate change forcer, but because communities mining gas are suffering increasingly documented health problems and because climate change is the greatest health threat of this century. Terrifying that the world is on track to be 3-6 degrees hotter by 2100. The ice melts and dangers posed by currently trapped methane gas were particularly stark aspects of the excellent #ClimateChangeTheFacts

As Greta says, we need systems change not climate change.

Dr David Shearman AM FRACP is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University and the co-author of the book ‘The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy’.

Access the full article in Independent Australia here.


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