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What is Methane and What's Bad About It?

Methane (chemical formula CH4) is an invisible, odorless gas.  You’re certainly harmlessly breathing some in right now.


So why do we worry about it? Well, methane is also one of the worst greenhouse gases, absorbing heat rather than letting it radiate away into space.  Paradoxically, it’s also very important for life on this planet.  Humans evolved in an environment where the level of methane in the atmosphere was enough to keep us warm, like a comfy blanket on our bed at night.  Sadly, human activity has almost tripled the amount of methane in the air, as if we had two extra blankets over us in our beds.

And those two extra blankets have had dire consequences, leading to between a third and a half of the rise in temperature!  That temperature rise has lead to rising sea levels, worse storms, and change in rain patterns.  If that isn't bad enough for human life, excess methane can cause heart and lung problems in humans and can kill our crops.

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Where does methane come from?


About 40% of methane comes from natural sources: swamps and other wetlands, rotting vegetation, and from some animal activity.  Before humans started using fossil fuels, nature could keep up with these emissions and maintain a healthy balance.


Today, the majority comes from human activity like fossil fuel production (both active sites and old, abandoned ones), growing crops and food animals, transport and landfills.


Methane is the main component of natural gas.  Despite its effect on temperature, natural gas is often even described as a “green fuel” because burning it generates less soot than other fuels.  Unfortunately, the consequences of extracting, processing, and burning it have been dire.


Human activity has increased methane emissions in other ways as well.  By raising the average temperature of the earth, we have caused melting of areas of land that used to be frozen, notably the Arctic and Siberian tundra. This process has released methane that had been frozen there for thousands of years. Worse, vegetation that also froze there thousands of years ago is now defrosting and rotting, releasing further methane. In 2021, the amount of methane in the atmosphere reached an unprecedented level. Isotopic analysis of atmospheric methane has shown that it is this ancient vegetation that has been responsible for last year is dramatic rise.


Can’t we just reduce emissions?


As you can see from the above, most sources of methane are quite diffuse (meaning spread out or not concentrated).  Very little comes out a pipe that can be plugged.


When the source is not diffuse, it can sometimes be addressed right on the spot: for example, some good work is going into removing methane that is emitted inside cattle barns and from abandoned coal mines.  Regulation in some jurisdictions requires that contemporary oil and gas production take steps to reduce “fugitive” methane release.


Clearly some human emissions we can eventually stop by simply stopping the use of natural gas. Unfortunately, we cannot do that overnight!  Even after we stop using natural gas, some of our historical activities to get that natural gas in the first place have resulted in leaks that cannot be plugged.


But the big human activity that releases this gas is also a natural process: agriculture. And nobody would want to stop growing food!  


Since most of the methane emission cannot be stopped, to remove the gas we must go where it is: in the open atmosphere.  To learn more about how we plan to do this, click here.

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