Methane: The Forgotten Climate Change Driver That’s Poisoning Frontline Communities
The average American believes the false narrative that natural gas is a “clean fuel.”
There is a poisonous greenhouse gas leaking from oil and gas drilling sites around the globe that traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere at more than 80 times the rate of carbon dioxide during its first 20 years in the atmosphere, making it the second-biggest climate change driver after carbon dioxide. It is the cause of nearly a third of global warming. And many people don’t even know what it is.
In December 2020, the New York Times called this gas a “significant” climate issue that “has yet to fully take hold among the public.” It’s called methane. Chemically speaking, methane is the simplest hydrocarbon—just one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms—and is the main constituent of natural gas, used worldwide as a fuel (in 2019, to the tune of nearly 3.9 trillion cubic meters).
The United States leads the world in natural gas consumption, nearly doubling Russia’s usage.
According to the International Energy Agency, methane has contributed to approximately 30 percent of the increase in global temperatures since the onset of the Industrial Revolution.
The “Bridge Fuel” Deception
Supporters of natural gas have deceptively hailed this fossil fuel as a “bridge fuel” that can reduce our dependency on oil and coal while giving society time to develop renewable energy, citing the fact that it burns cleaner than those dirtier fuels. While it does produce fewer carbon emissions than oil or coal at the point at which it is burned, it is actually dirtier than oil or coal when considering its entire life cycle—not just the point of combustion.
A main problem is that natural gas adds to global warming even before it is burned since processing and transporting it leaks methane. In addition, methane leaks not just from natural gas extraction, but from oil and gas extraction as well. The oil and gas industry is the single biggest industrial source of global methane emissions. Since the Industrial Revolution, the atmospheric concentration of methane has increased by at least 150%, mainly due to human activity.
“It’s impossible to hit [Paris agreement] climate targets with methane in the mix,” Lena Höglund Isaksson, a greenhouse gas expert at Austria’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, told National Geographic in February 2020.
False: Natural Gas Is a Clean Fuel
But the natural gas deception has worked. The average American believes that natural gas is a clean fuel that doesn’t come with the climate or pollution harms that oil or coal do, according to public opinion research. During the Trump administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rolled back regulations on methane that were established during the Obama administration, thus giving oil and gas companies free rein to let this pollutant run amok in the atmosphere. Following the EPA’s announcement of the rollback in August 2020, Rob Jackson, an earth system science professor at Stanford University, said, “We are effectively telling the rest of the world we don’t care about climate change.”
States vs. EPA
States have fought back against federal rules. On December 7, 2020, 20 states and three localities filed an opening brief in a lawsuit against the EPA saying that the agency violated the Clean Air Act and ignored the EPA’s own past policies when it rescinded 2016 methane regulations from oil and gas operations.
“The agency has not, and cannot, offer a reasoned explanation” for its regulatory rollbacks, and thus is “arbitrary and capricious” in violation of the Clean Air Act, the plaintiffs said.
Methane Harms Public Health
Climate change isn’t the only issue exacerbated by methane: Public health also suffers, as methane emissions increase ground-level ozone, commonly known as smog, a cause of respiratory diseases like asthma, as well as cardiovascular disease. In the COVID era, anything that negatively impacts lung function makes people more susceptible to the effects of coronavirus infection. Natural gas development also emits pollutants, including the ultra-fine particulate matter that can damage the heart, liver, kidneys, and central nervous system.
Fracking, the process of extracting natural gas, also uses more than 50 toxic chemicals that are known or suspected carcinogens. These health effects impact “frontline communities,” communities of color and low-income, whose neighborhoods usually lack basic infrastructure to support them and protect them from pollution, many of them near oil and gas facilities.
Mustafa Santiago Ali, the National Wildlife Federation’s vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization, blasted the EPA methane rollback. “While this rule hurts all of us, it will disproportionately impact Black, Hispanic and Indigenous communities, again putting those Americans most impacted by environmental racism at risk of dying prematurely from air pollution,” he said in August 2020, adding, “This is another example of how [the Trump] administration creates sacrifice zones across our country.”
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline (which was canceled due to legal uncertainty) was a prime example. The pipeline would have carried fracked natural gas some 600 miles from the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia through Virginia and North Carolina, passing through not only the hallowed, historic Appalachian Trail, but also through low-income communities and communities of color. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission “determined that more than half of the census tracts within a mile of the [Atlantic Coast Pipeline] have disproportionately high populations of people either living below the poverty line or belonging to racial or ethnic minorities,” according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.
As the Climate Reality Project puts it, “While climate change affects all of us, the impacts aren’t shared equally.”