Methane and the Near Future

As far as greenhouse gases go, methane is one of the most dangerous, and one of the most underestimated. Looking towards the future, one can see many of the negative possibilities that can result from the currently undisturbed methane emissions just waiting to pour out into the environment.
It has been made quite plain through research that the methane problem is far direr than even the EPA has estimated. Much of the world's methane is concentrated in the form of so-called gas "hydrates," ice-like solids that form from methane and water at cold temperatures and high pressures, for example, deep beneath the ocean floor. According to the US Geological Survey, the total global carbon content of such methane hydrates is estimated to equal some 1,800 gigatons (to be sure, there is considerable uncertainty about this estimate). The amount of methane in the sea floor is thought to be greater than that of all hydrocarbon gases stored in reservoirs on land. A significant amount of the Earth’s methane is currently frozen in ice, and as the effects of global warming cause this ice to melt, they will worsen due to the released methane.

Over time, this released methane will create a snowballing effect, with more released methane releasing more methane, contributing further and further to the damages of global climate change. Pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane on climate change is more than 25 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period. This compounding effect could prove far more hazardous and irreversible than CO2, the effects of which we’re experiencing as the result of fossil fuel burning a generation ago. The delayed effects of both CO2 and methane indicate that immediate precautions and preventative action must be taken immediately to prevent global climate change from ramping up even higher.

Solving the Methane Problem

Methane accounts for nearly 9% of domestic greenhouse gas emissions, and are predicted to increase through 2030 if actions are not immediately taken. Methane makes up a small portion of the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide, but it is a significant component of the greenhouse effect. Methane molecules absorb 20-30 times more infrared energy than carbon dioxide molecules in their respective lifetimes in the atmosphere, and their overall contribution to the greenhouse effect is estimated at 18% compared to 63% for CO2. Add this potency to the fact that it has a short lifespan in the atmosphere of between 9-12 years (compared to 100 years for CO2), and you can start to see why cutting methane emissions now could make sense.

Methane is also the primary component of natural gas, and therefore its leaking represents a loss of useful material. It’s been suggested that the reduction of methane emissions will not only positively impact global warming, but the recovery of the gas that would have been emitted will improve power generation through natural gas.

Methane comes from a variety of sources including:
-Coal mines
-The oil and gas sector

All of these sources contribute to the accumulation of methane in our atmosphere, and therefore all must be addressed if the problem is to be halted entirely. One scary fact is that a large proportion of methane emissions is natural, and cannot be stopped easily. Wetlands, for example, produce a significant amount of methane, but cannot simply be drained, as this will result in a release of CO2. Scientists such as Dr. Vincent Gauci have studied this problem, but have come to the conclusion that a solution is not easily within reach.

The largest unused method of reducing man-made emissions is regulation. Many reports have been made demonstrating the effects these regulations could have on these emissions, in many cases reducing them by up to 40%.  Rules implemented by the EPA could act to severely cut down the man-made methane emissions, while further studies into the natural problem could develop a definite solution to methane released from wetlands and melting ice. Acting now is absolutely essential, as independent research suggests that even EPA reports are recording only half of the actual methane emissions the world is experiencing.
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Modern Methane Management in Thailand

Many think that a garbage heap is the end of the line when it comes to product usefulness, but it turns out that the Pangea Green Energy Company in the Philippines has figured out how to pull even more potential out of the Patayas landfill.

The waste accumulating in the landfill becomes a massive source of methane as the garbage decomposes. Converting this methane to electricity keeps the gas from our atmosphere and reduces the need to burn fossil fuels. 

Following a process similar to that of gas wells, the methane is captured with pipes set into the landfill. Methane is then drawn down to a power station at the bottom of the site and pumped into generators to create electricity. Jennifer Fernan Campos, who is the President of the company behind the project, says that the greenhouse gases that are now being saved at Payatas landfill is the equivalent to taking 18,000 cars off Manila's roads.

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Methane in the News: How does methane affect our climate change policies?

Recently in the news there has been quite a bit of discussion about methane emissions and their effect on climate change. The Obama administration has been focusing its efforts to reduce methane emissions in order to reduce its effects on climate change. The plan is called President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. Many environmental agencies are now using key elements of this plan to help reduce climate change. This week the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also announced that they will help prevent methane pollution by reducing the waste made through natural gas processing. The new mandate would prevent natural gas emissions from drilling, venting, flaring, leaking, pneumatic devices, and equipment upgrades.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), methane is the “second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States from human activities”, accounting for as much as 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. It is important that plans such as the plan proposed by the Bureau of Land Management take effect, and that bureaus and agencies make effort in this reduction. While some argue that these plans will place a burden on taxpayers, Western Values Project reports that taxpayers are actually losing more money without the new policy; in the next decade an estimated $800 million is lost without the new regulations set in place. It could also have a significant impact on methane emissions. The U.S. Department of Interior estimates that it could reduce methane emissions up to 169,000 tons per year. This reduction of methane emissions is just one small step to fighting climate change.  

Where does methane pollution come from?

This week we have been talking a lot about methane and its dangerous effects on the atmosphere and human health. While learning about this, it is also important to know where all of the methane is coming from in order to reduce the pollution. There are several industrial and residential uses for methane that can leak into the atmosphere, as well as some surprising sources such as animal digestive gasses.

Natural gas/petroleum:
Methane is commonly used in chemical industries, such as the refining of petrochemicals. It is used as a fuel and burned in gas turbines or steam generators to produce electricity. It is also one of the main ingredients in natural gas used in homes [1]. Each of these uses come with their own risk of leaking methane into the atmosphere unfortunately. For example, at least 1.5% of natural gas escapes into the atmosphere from the drilling extraction, to processing or transportation [1]. Over time, that can add up to a lot of methane pollution.

Animal Gas
This source might surprise some, but livestock, especially cattle, is the second leading cause of methane pollution in the U.S., constituting 25% of all methane emissions in the U.S. In fact, 3 cubic 
feet of methane is produced per pound of manure [2]. Cows and other livestock are considered ruminants, or animals that digest food in their stomachs (as opposed to intestines). The bacteria found in their stomachs helps break down the food, but also creates methane and other gases. This methane is released into the atmosphere through belching and/or excrement. [3].

Landfill Gas (LFG) is a byproduct of the natural decomposition of organic materials found in landfills. This gas is made up of half methane and half carbon dioxide, both of which are potent greenhouse gases [4]. As you can see from the graph, approximately 18% of methane pollution comes from landfills and 91% of that pollution comes from the open landfills found all over the U.S. [5]. It is also becoming clear that landfills are an untapped energy resource. Closed landfills are being used more and more to produce electricity for nearby businesses or given back to the local electricity grid. 

Coal Mining 
Methane occurs naturally in coal bed seams and can be released when coal is extracted from the ground. Coal Mine Methane (CMM) is generally trapped within the coal seam and gets exposed to the atmosphere when layers of coal face are removed. The methane is first released into the mine shaft, exposing workers to hazardous air quality, and eventually moves out into the atmosphere. 

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Rome: The First Polluters

While air pollution and the deterioration of the ozone layer has rapidly progressed over the past century, the process of man destroying the Earth began over 2,000 years ago. In what could be called the beginning of the end, the Romans and the Han Dynasty in China became the first known polluters. The main ingredient in this recipe for disaster is of course, methane. 

Scientists were able to discover this by testing samples of gas bubbles trapped in ice that has taken thousands of years to accumulate. A team of 15 scientists from Europe and the U.S. traveled to Greenland to collect the samples. Their goal originally was to determine how warm spells affect the amount of methane in the atmosphere. Methane is a naturally occurring gas so it is important to determine how much is being produced due to human involvement versus nature.

What they found was an increase of methane in the atmosphere, but in periods other than warm spells. That could only mean it was spurred by human activity. The Romans contributed to this increase by their domesticated livestock excreting methane through digestion, as well as the process of burning wood to make their weapons. The Han dynasty on the other hand, produced large amount of rice fields that attracted methane producing bacteria.

From a period of about 1,700 years between 100 B.C. to 1600 A.D., methane was produced at an increase of about 31 million tons per year. Those numbers are astounding and scientists will have to rethink how much damage we have done in recent centuries versus the overall impact humans have had. While it is clear that the environmental impact humans have had has only increased, the scope and magnitude is now much larger. We might now be the biggest contributors to global pollution and methane production, but we certainly were not the first.

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Sources of Methane (and How to Avoid Them)

Methane gas is primarily a greenhouse gas, and causes negative effects in the atmosphere. However, there are also many places in which an individual may come into contact with methane gas. It is a colorless, odorless gas, so any methane present may not be immediately noticeable. Commercial methane may have an odorant added for safety purposes. It is a Class A (Compressed Gas) and Class B1 (Flammable Gas) chemical. 

Humans create sources of methane primarily through the burning of fossil fuels. Methane emissions can come from commercial vehicles, equipment operation in factories and oil fields, and the processing and storing of natural gas. Two of the most dangerous sources of methane emissions are from hydraulic fracking, where methane can leak into groundwater and affect the surrounding environment, and coal mining, where methane deposits become trapped underground and can cause fires or explosions. 

Everyone inhales small amounts of methane everyday, and that is unavoidable. However, in certain areas, methane accumulation can become dangerous and it is important to know how to avoid coming in contact with large quantities. Methane can accumulate in low-lying, confined spaces such as abandoned mine shafts. Exploring these spaces is not only dangerous due to the chance of becoming lost or injured, but also because of these deposits. An open flame could easily ignite the methane due to its flammable classification, and the safest means of extinguishing it is dry chemical powder or high-expansion foam. Water or typical extinguishers will not be effective. Methane also displaces oxygen in the air and inhaling large amounts can cause symptoms of oxygen deprivation. The most common areas for methane exposure are around farms, industrial sites, and the U.S. Southwest, because of the high number of human-related sources in that region. It is rare that one will become exposed to large amounts of methane, but being smart and avoiding known sources could help prevent illness or loss of life. 

There are many naturally occurring sources of methane gas. The most well-known natural source is in the digestive processes of animals, primarily cows. It is also called marsh gas due to concentrations of methane gas in swamplands from decomposing material. There are also minor quantities of the gas in permafrost, oceans, fresh water, mud volcanoes, and wildfires. The most unique quantities of methane gas are found in underground deposits called methane clathrates, which were originally only thought to be found in the far reaches of the solar system, but have been found under sediment on the ocean floor.

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Sources: National Library of Medicine: Tox Town
Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety

Dangers of air pollution in the home

Air pollution poses a serious threat to our nations health. The American Lung Association works to improve air quality so that the air we breath is safe and clean. Things such as Carbon Monoxide (CO) and Radon are odorless and colorless. The lack of odor and color play a large part in the level of danger because it poses no warning to those in the home.  CO can emit from gas stove ranges and kills quickly.

Ways to prevent these issues are to run the exhaust hood when cooking to help ventilate the air, check burners every now and then and make sure they're clean, and absolutely ban smoking from your home.