Can We Tame the Methane Monster?

Can We Tame the Methane Monster?

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Hello and welcome to FacingFuture.TV. I am your  host, Raya Salter. I’m a climate lawyer and   activist. How can we tame the methane monster? To  discuss this, I’m joined today by Dr. Bob Howarth.   He is the David R Atkinson Professor of Ecology  and Environmental Biology at Cornell University.   Without further ado, welcome Bob!  Welcome Dr. Howarth! >>>Thank you,  

Raya! It's great to be with you today. >>>If  you could help me and help us understand - you   know - the threat of methane. >>>Yeah, near as much as they do carbon dioxide and that's   fine. Carbon dioxide is the... it's the most  important greenhouse gas, but methane's important.  

If we look at the warming to date - you  know - human activities warmed the planet by   a little bit over 1 degree Celsius so  far 1.1, almost 1.2 degrees Celsius,   enough, that we're seeing major climate  disruptions from that warming. Of that warming   0.75 degrees is coming from carbon dioxide  and 0.5, which isn't that much less,  

is coming from methane. If you're good with math,  you'll add those up and it's a little bit more   warming than we've observed, that's because sulfur  pollution is cooling the Earth a little bit too.   Bottom line is, we would be nowhere near  as warm as we are today, if it were not for   that methane. The most recent science from  the Intergovernmental Panel and Climate Change   they did their first major global update  to the synthesis released last summer,   and they now very much highlight methane and the  need to do more on methane. One of the issues   is that - you know - both carbon dioxide and  methane are critical greenhouse gases, but they   operate on different time scales. The carbon  dioxide that we put into the atmosphere today  

will continue to have some influence for centuries  to come, perhaps even a thousand years into the   future, because it's taken up by the oceans and  far since re-released and stays with us. Methane   has a half-life in the atmosphere of only about  a dozen years or so. Of the methane that we're   putting in now most of it will be dissipated  completely in the time period of 70 to 80 years,   so it's a... while it's in the atmosphere it's  100 times more potent than carbon dioxide.  

There's less of it in the atmosphere  and it doesn't hang around as long.   So, they're both critical greenhouse gases, but  they're operating with different intensities   and different time scales. >>>How do we account  for methane and why does that matter? >>>Well,   see, methane's a… it's a colorless, odorless gas,  right? You can't see it, you can't smell it, and   that means historically it's been difficult to get  good measures of the concentration, but also the   sources and where it's coming from, and it comes  from multiple sources - you know - some of it's   coming from natural sources, principally wetlands  and freshwater lakes, but most of it now is coming   from human activity. But a bunch of different  human activities. It's coming from coal mining,   it's coming from the oil and gas industry for  sure, it's coming from animal agriculture. Cows   burp a fair amount of methane, rice agriculture  produces methane, wastewater treatment plants   produce it, landfills produce it, and we have a  bunch of tools we can use. We can look at time   trends and we can look at spatial distributions  over the planet. We also have some chemical  

signals. Methane is a very simple molecule. It's  one carbon atom with four hydrogen atoms around   it, but they're different isotopes of carbon.  The relative amount of those in the atmosphere   gives us information as to where the methane is  coming from. >>>Why don't we go ahead and turn   to how some of this is played out in your work in  New York. In New York, we have our landmark 2019   Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act,  some of the nation's most robust goals to reduce   greenhouse gas emission. I know that you worked  quite closely with the state in determining how   that accounting mechanism would - you know - would  be used, in particular with regard to methane.  

>>>The language which is in the bill passed and  I helped write going way back to 2016 or so. The   issue is… well, it's twofold. It's the time frame  over which you account for methane and it's also   the spatial boundaries which we consider,  so let me deal with the time frame first.  

Historically, greenhouse gas accounting has looked  at methane on a time frame of 100 years after it's   emitted, so you get a pulse of methane and we look  at the cumulative effect for 100 years into the   future in comparison to carbon dioxide and that is  sort of enshrined in the Kyoto protocol from 1992,   but the science behind it was always pretty weak.   I and others have been arguing for better part of  a decade now that 20 years is a better time frame.   It more realistically captures what methane  actually does for the time it's in the atmosphere.   Most of the climatic warming that's occurred that  we're concerned about has happened in the last   30 years - you know - we're not… this didn't just  creep up slowly over 200 years. It's a recent   phenomenon and we're trying to keep the planet  below 1.5 degrees of warming. We're at 1.1, 1.2.   We're in a trajectory to hit that target in  10, 12, 15 years from now, so averaging it all   out 100 years into the future hugely underplays  the importance of methane, so the time frame is   important and the CLCPA mandates that the 20-year  time frame be used, so that's one aspect. The  

other is geography, and traditionally, when one  does a greenhouse gas inventory, you look just at   the emissions which occur within your boundaries,  so within the state of New York in our case and   on the face of it that's logical. Why would you  be looking elsewhere? But the issue is - you   know - in New York we're particularly sensitive  to the issue, I think. We banned fracking in the   state, right? We don't develop shale gas in  this state and there's good reasons for that,   but we import a huge amount of shale gas, mostly  from Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia. There are   large methane emissions associated with that, but  most of those methane emissions don't happen in   New York. We're the ones using the fuel, but they  happen where the gas is produced and processed,   where it starts to be transported, so they're  happening in Pennsylvania, and the CLCPA says,   we in New York will take responsibility in our  greenhouse gas accounting for emissions no matter   where they occur, if they're associated with  our use of energy, and that's a game changer,   because - you know - the carbon dioxide emissions  from using fracked gas are low compared to coal,   so it looks like - you know - people talked  about the bridge fuel for a while, [right, right]   language has gone away. If you include the methane  emissions, the greenhouse gas footprint of shale  

gas is worse than that of coal and if we just look  at those emissions in New York, you missed that.   You have to understand what's going on in  Pennsylvania to support our use of, our addiction   to, that direct gas so I think that's a huge  game changer and very important. It's actually a   bigger difference than the time frame in terms of  shifting the result. It's important when we look   at the overall inventories, because using the  traditional approach, where we only looked at   emissions within New York and we looked at  methane over 100 your time period, methane   ended up being about 0.1 percent or so of our  total greenhouse gas inventory and the number one  

industry would be transportation. When  we use this new accounting, and we take   full responsibility for methane, methane is now  about 30 percent of our greenhouse gas inventory,   and the number one source of emissions is  the heating of our homes and our commercial   buildings. It's our use of natural gas, so  it fundamentally changes how you look at it.   >>>Is it fair to say that the CLCPA, that New  York is relatively unique? >>>You know - no other   states are doing this, but I think they will. I  know Vermont is considering it, Massachusetts.   I expect that other states will come along  as they start to see the wisdom of this, and   the European Union has been considering some of  these changes as well. >>>What are some of the   even… the national or global implications of  looking at this new accounting? >>>Yeah, well,   again - you know - methane is responsible for  half a degree of the warming we've had to date.  

Most of the warming we've seen to date is over  the last 30 years. Again, we're trying to keep the   planet at 1.5 degrees below that pre-industrial  threshold, so methane alone has driven us a   third of the way to that target and the good  news, the good and bad news about methane is,   it's extremely powerful greenhouse gas, it doesn't  stay in the atmosphere that long, so if we can…   if we can reduce our emissions, it has a  really rapid response - you know - if you   were to start to reduce carbon dioxide emissions  now, there's a lag in the climate system of about   30 years before you really start to slow  warming. You reduce methane emissions now,   you slow global warming now, and the best  science on that… there's a report that came out   last spring, led by Drew Shindell, Professor at  Duke University who I think is the world's leading   expert in this. He led an effort for the United  Nations environmental program, and they estimated   that, globally, humans could relatively easily  cut methane emissions by about 45 percent in this   decade, by the end of this decade, and that… to do  so would slow the rate of global warming by about   0.3/0.4 degrees Celsius by the time we came  to 2040. So that's a cost-effective approach,   paying attention to methane really does  matter and in terms of governments that   get here - you know - again New York is on  the forefront of paying attention to this.  

>>>This is fascinating and I’m understanding that  it's both - you know - like a fearsome… a fearsome   thing to understand - you know - how big this  problem is, but that it also presents in a way…   if we focus on the sector of some real near-term  opportunities, this again makes me think of how   are we going to tame this monster, in  particular regard to the energy sector?   The fossil gas industry has been using this  idea that - I think - is very much in the   popular understanding that natural gas is cleaner  burning and is something that is a tool to help us   achieve emissions reductions. What is your view  on that? >>>I personally think we should just be   moving away from using gas and all other fossil  fuels as quickly as possible, and I think that's   the most effective way to solve this problem  and that's - you know - that's what the CLCPA   mandates for New York. >>>That sort of gets  me to my next couple of questions in terms of   solutions that are being proposed. There's this  idea of hydrogen as a solution, green hydrogen  

and blue hydrogen. I know, this is something  that you've worked on. Could you explain,   help us understand what is green hydrogen? What  is blue hydrogen? And why does this…? >>>Yeah,   no, it's a really interesting topic and to be  honest, I had never heard of blue hydrogen until   you and I were on the climate action  council, and I started hearing people   suggest that blue hydrogen might be part of  our solution - you know. We should move away   from fossil gas and perhaps we should replace  it with this blue hydrogen, so I started… oh,   after about the summer of 2020 into the  fall of 2020, I started - you know - asking   expert colleagues what they knew about blue  hydrogen and greenhouse gas footprint and looking   myself for the literature and - you know - all of  my colleagues said they didn't know anything about   it, and there and you look at the literature  and there really was absolutely no literature,   so industry was promoting this blue hydrogen  idea as a fuel of the future that was either   zero emissions or low emissions, depending on  who you're listening to, and we'll get… we'll   go… >>>Tell us what is blue hydrogen. >>>Well,  blue hydrogen… it's the invention of the public  

relations folks of the oil and gas industry. To  be blunt, the terminology was first originated   by the French gas company Air Liquide in 2015,  pretty recently, and it started to make its way   into the rest of Europe and into English-speaking  countries in about 2017, 2018. There's a group   called The Hydrogen Council which has been  hugely instrumental in that, and the Hydrogen   Council is a lobbying group that was first  established in 2017 by British Petroleum, French   oil giant ‘Total’ and others, and they  promoted this idea of blue hydrogen, so   hydrogen, if you look at hydrogen in the world  today, 96 percent of it comes from fossil fuels   and in Europe and in the United States and  Canada, it's coming entirely from natural gas.   In China they make hydrogen from coal, but still  globally it's 96 percent from fossil fuels,   so it's got a… it has a really large greenhouse  gas footprint. The invention of the industry…   this was this idea of we call that by the way  ‘gray hydrogen’ which - you know - who wants to   market ‘gray’ hydrogen? If you make it from coal,  it's called brown hydrogen, even harder to market.   The invention of the industry was  to come up with ‘blue hydrogen’,   which is to take this gray hydrogen and  apply carbon dioxide capture and storage   to the carbon dioxide that's emitted when we  produce this hydrogen from the methane and   so that's why they're saying it's a low emission,  zero emission fuel. The idea is producing hydrogen  

from natural gas, but you're capturing the  carbon dioxide so - you know - that sounds good.   In the end there was no peer-reviewed literature  supporting that. In fact, it was a low emissions   fuel, so I started - you know - taking that on  directly as a research challenge, pretty heavily,   oh, about a year ago now, actually not  that long ago, and there are two issues:   one is you can't use natural gas without having  some methane escape to the atmosphere and again,   it doesn't happen at the facility; it happens  where the gas is being produced and processed   and transported et cetera. So, when you  use this natural gas as your feedstock,  

it's also your energy source that you burn to  produce that high pressure, and temperature,   pressure and temperature to do it, so you  have a lot of use of natural gas there. It's   a lot of methane emissions associated with it and  industry is doing nothing to try to reduce that.   Then you come to the carbon capture. Well, I  wasn't really an expert in carbon capture, so   I brought in my colleague Mark Jacobson who's an  engineer at Stanford, who is an expert in it, and   he and I co-authored the paper in the end. Bottom  line is that there are only two facilities where  

people have ever tried to make this blue hydrogen,  and from the carbon dioxide that's produced they   are… they actually capture in the neighborhood of  85 percent of that, but some of it's still emitted   from the actual breakdown of some methane  into hydrogen carbon dioxide, but of the   gas that's burned to produce all of that heat and  pressure they haven't even tried to capture it.   So, overall, there's a huge amount of carbon  dioxide that's coming out and then you look at   the possibilities. Carbon dioxide is hard stuff  to capture, so if you look at the power plants   where they've tried to do it, the industry norm  is if you're capturing 55, 60 percent, you're   doing well, and of course it takes more energy to  do that, and there's more emissions associated.   We went through the accounting and determined that  the greenhouse gas footprint of this blue hydrogen   is actually worse than if you were to simply burn  natural gas or coal. In fact, so it's not a low   emissions fuel, it's public relations, it's green  washing, quite frankly, it's a way to make it   seem like you're cleaning up the problem with  fossil gas and you're actually aggravating it.   >>>What I’m hearing is clearly a global fossil  fuel industry seeking to stay in business by...  

it's almost replicating that - you know -  the clean coal idea that we knew was great.   >>>It's like the clean coal idea. It's like the  gas as a bridge fuel idea and - you know - those   ideas are all passe, but this is the latest  invention. Yeah, we have blue hydrogen and - you   know - it's misleading beyond what I’ve even  said, because there's an implication that you can   put the stuff into the gas distribution systems  and use that pipelines, and people can continue   to use it into the future. That's just not true.  The… you can mix a little bit of hydrogen in with   natural gas and the existing pipeline systems,  say, we would have here in New York state, but not   more than 10, 20, maybe 30 percent, no more than  that. It's too corrosive. It would break down the   pipes so you simply can't do it. You still mostly  have to use fossil gas in the system and also,  

as you increase the hydrogen - you know - your gas  furnace, your gas stove, your gas water heater,   aren't designed to handle that. [right, right].  So, you would need to get a new furnace,   a new water heater, a new stove, if you actually  went to a high amount of hydrogen and - you   know - they are very misleading in how they  promote that. They make it seem like these are   interchangeable fuels. They're not. >>>What were  the… what were the implications? I know that your   work on that blue hydrogen issue got a lot of  attention and like you said, didn't seem like   there was a lot in the literature, and I think  that the fossil industry was kind of getting   away with promoting this narrative. What were the  implications of kind of exposing what was going   on there? How is this news… >>>Our paper only  came out last August, which is pretty recent,   and there's a lot of momentum; that industry has  gotten going behind this idea of blue hydrogen, so   as it turns, I wasn't aware of this until  our paper came out, but I really annoyed   a huge number of people, in the United Kingdom  in particular, because they were just coming out   with their new 10-year energy plan to meet  climate goals and all in advance the COP26,   right? And it, blue hydrogen, plays  a big role in that because it's   zero emissions or low emissions they said, and -  you know - their report was coming out the same   week that our paper was published, that - you  know – they… it's like kicking a hornet's nest.   They were really mad at me over that. There's also  a fair amount of momentum in the European Union  

for forces that think that maybe blue hydrogen  has a rule and that's still kind of playing out   and there's some in the United States - you know  - the quote-unquote ‘bipartisan Infrastructure   Bill’ that passed in the fall gives pretty big  subsidies to blue hydrogen. I hope there really   isn't much scientific debate about what we've  done - you know - people were annoyed, but other   scientists are looking at and go… Well, yeah,  and we - you know - there are input assumptions.   We make the assumption that three and a half  percent of the natural gas that's developed   escapes unburned, is methane. That's – well  - supported by science, but some people think   it can be less, some people more, and in terms of  the carbon capture of the gas that you're burning,   we assume for our default assumption that 65  percent of the carbon dioxide can be captured.   Industry says they might be able to get to 90  percent. They've never demonstrated that, but we  

did a sensitivity analysis saying, okay, you can  do 90 percent. And okay, you can reduce methane   emissions down to one and a half percent and it's  still worse than natural gas - you know - so it's   our conclusions are quite robust across the range  of any reasonable input data you'd want to use.   There are a few other papers that are starting  to come out now and they'll - you know - they   quibble a little bit with some of our details,  but they're reaching the same conclusions we are.   Okay, that's a very robust conclusion and I hope  eventually that will have some influence in the   policy world but - you know - you're up against  very powerful, very powerful lobbying forces.   >>>What's the difference between blue hydrogen  and green hydrogen? >>>Okay, well, blue hydrogen   again… it's just... it's this misleading marketing  thought that you can take fossil fuels and somehow  

not have methane emissions associated with it and  somehow actively capture all that carbon dioxide   and you can't, so it's just… it's misleading.  It shouldn't be used. It shouldn't be explored.   We really are better off just using the fossil gas  directly, we really are. Just that's the context.   Green hydrogen, again, is the hydrogen that's made  from using a 100 percent renewable electricity.   Electricity is coming from wind, hydro, solar,  and then you're electrolyzing water and turning   into hydrogen and oxygen and the - you know - the  greenhouse gas consequences of that are quite low,   because it's renewable energy. The whole  process of making the hydrogens inefficient,  

so even it's green, truly green, the  energy source is 100 percent renewable,   but it's still not particularly efficient,  so it's not necessarily a good use. So,   let's think of where it might be good and where  it might be bad. I’ll start with where it's bad.  Some are suggesting that we use green hydrogen  to heat our homes and commercial buildings. Well,   that's just really a bad idea, because  you're taking the renewable electricity   you're converting into hydrogen, there's a loss  of energy associated with that. Then you have   to… hydrogen's hard to transport and store; it is  corrosive. If you need really fancy high quality   stainless steel to handle it. You can't compress  it very easily, that takes a lot of energy. So,  

it's not particularly conducive to moving it  around. You can't use our existing gas pipeline   system. It's not built for that. So, you can't  really get to people's houses, but let's say,   you could take care of that all and you could, and  you could burn it in something like our current   gas furnaces. Those still are pretty inefficient  and so you end up… you… if you were to do that  

and you solved the transportation problem, at best  you'd get about 0.4 units of heat energy for the   one unit of electricity that you put into the  system to make the hydrogen in the first place.   You're losing 60 percent of the energy. So let  me contrast that with using a ground source   heat pump, high efficiency, where we're putting  in electricity. It's extracting heat from the  

groundwater around the building and so it actually  has an efficiency higher than 100 percent. People   can't possibly be more than that, but it's because  you're extracting energy from the environment. So,   for that one unit of electricity, you put into  the heat pump, you're getting out four, maybe   four and a half units of heat energy, so for the  same amount of electricity you're getting 10 times   more heat in your home, if you go with a heat pump  than if you somehow miraculously use hydrogen.  

It's just a really bad idea to even go down that  whole track so that's… let's put that behind us. One use for hydrogen, green hydrogen, might  be to store electricity so - you know – we…   the wind doesn't always blow, the sun doesn't  always shine. We need to store electricity.  When we're producing surplus electricity, why not  use it to store hydrogen and then you can feed the   hydrogen back into the electric grid. And if you  do it through a fuel cell instead of burning it,   then the emissions are fairly low. So, it's…  that's fine. I think there's nothing wrong  

with that at all, but we should be very careful  to determine that that's the best and most cost   effective way to store the electricity. And  there are other things we could do. You can   use flywheels to store the energy, to momentum  you can compress or liquefy air and then feed   it back to a turbine and regenerate it. You  can pump water and store it and run it back,   so hydrogen is one way we can store renewable  electricity and it might be the best, but that   really hasn't been demonstrated. I think we should  all have a real open mind and go into that. Other   uses of hydrogen that people talk about are in  terms of what we call really hard to decarbonize   things, so ship transport or - you know - jet  airplanes. And hydrogen may have a role there, but   again, I think there's a lot of… there's  excessive hype, let me phrase it that way:   I’ve been paying close attention since our  paper came out last summer and watching all the   responses. Hydrogen is essential  to do everything, people say. Well,   that really hasn't been demonstrated. There's a  lot more hype than fact behind it, so let's take  

aviation. You can't take hydrogen, and I mean,  you can actually take a jet engine and run it on   hydrogen instead of jet fuel, that's possible.  What you can't do is run a jet airplane on it,   because you can't store enough hydrogen  on the airplane to make any difference,   certainly not in the wings, where the jet fuel  is, because you need to liquefy in order to get   enough on board. You'd have to displace all of the  passengers in the plane with our current aircraft,  

so you're talking about designing a totally  different type of aircraft, if you're going   to do that. And then people say, well, you could  instead of burning in the jet engine, you could   turn into electricity using fuel cells, and then  run electric props or something, and that's true,   but it's… you're probably better off using  batteries if you're gonna go the electric route,   and there are in fact electric planes now,  and they're improving, they're running longer   distances, so maybe hydrogen will catch up, but  I don't think that's a proven fact, so I and…   green hydrogen is going to be... until we have  a surplus of renewable electricity, which is   decades into the future. Right now, we need every  drop we have to displace fossil fuels. We need to  

be really careful how we use that green energy,  and we want to make sure that we do so in the most   efficient and cost-effective way, and it's not  clear to me that hydrogen is going to be that in   most cases. >>>It sounds like there are some areas  that don't make any sense at all and there are   some areas that could potentially have promise and  there's sort of more of learning and research and   cost effectiveness and - you know - how beneficial  it'll be that we need to take really hard looks   at. >>>Yeah, I think that's exactly right, and I  - you know - I don't want to be overly negative. I   do… I have friends who work on hydrogen research,  and they say: Oh, you're being way too negative;   look at this, this might be a good use. It might  be, but let's be careful. >>>What is 'renewable  

natural gas'? >>>Well, renewable natural gas is  methane, but it's coming not from fossil sources,   but rather from biological sources, and I actually  support the responsible use of it, but we've done   the calculations for the state of New York and if  you take the wastewater treatment plants and the   landfills and we also take all of the cow manure  and make methane out of that, the total amount   of methane that you might produce statewide  is in the neighborhood of one and a half,   two percent of the amount of fossil gas that we  currently use. It's a small resource. It doesn't   mean we shouldn't use it, but we should be careful  not to pretend that it's going to replace our use   of fossil gas now, and I think… industry… I don't  know if it's deliberate or not, but they confuse   people on that; they make it seem like they can  continue to use their pipeline infrastructure   again with this renewable natural gas. You  can't. It's just not a large enough resource. I   think - you know - the CLCPA is a great law and if  we follow through and meet the goals of that law,   it's going to just be incredible for our state  and we can set an example for the world, but - you   know - we need to be clear-eyed and hard-nosed  about reaching those targets, and we shouldn't be   misled by what you call ‘fault solutions’ and  I agree they can easily be false solutions   and waste time and energy. >>>So, that brings me  to the question, what should we be doing right now   if we wanted to cut these emissions and get where  we need to be as fast as possible? >>>Beneficial   electrification of heating, beneficial  electrification of transportation, together   with these very cost-effective renewables, the  future is in electricity, the real challenges are   educational and counteracting misinformation and  thinking creatively about funding mechanisms, but   also creatively about the transitional challenges.  >>>So, I hear it. We've got the tools to do it. We  

need to be thoughtful about how we do it, and we  need to… we need to move away from fossil gas.   >>>Absolutely, and if New York can  make it work then - you know - we'll be   just… be an incredible educational experience  for the rest of the world to watch us. Right?   So... >>>I agree. Well, thank you so much Dr.  Howarth, and thank you, thank you so much for   joining us at FacingFuture.TV, as we discuss  how we can tame the methane monster. Thank you! you

2022-02-06 16:16

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