New Greenhouse Gas Data: Carbon Creeping Up and Methane Still Underestimated

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yesterday released its annual report on greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s largest sources of pollution, revealing that we still have enormous progress to make in cutting carbon.

The big bombshell was that in 2013, greenhouse gas emissions actually increased.  That’s right, increased.  Not only that, but the increase was tied to increased coal burning.

It’s a shameful reminder of how the fossil fuel industry continues to dig our nation deeper into climate debt.  With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calling for a 40-70% reduction in carbon emissions below 2010 levels by mid-century, the last thing we need is an increase in emissions.  It underscores that the fossil fuel industry’s resistance to limiting its pollution needs to be countered more fiercely than ever if we have any hope of making progress.

This is especially the case with regards to methane.  Sure, the EPA yesterday hyped its claim that methane emissions from fracking have decreased 73% since 2011.  But as Bobby Magill at Climate Central noted, the agency’s report fails to fully account for methane leaks at oil and gas wells, which studies have found can approach 12% in some regions.

What’s more, EPA’s data relies on a faulty assumption that methane has a global warming potential of 25.  The global warming potential is a measure of how potent a greenhouse gas is compared to carbon.  Yet as we reported before, the latest findings from the IPCC indicate that over a 20-year timeframe, methane actually has a global warming potential of 86.

In other words, the world’s leading body of climate scientists say that one ton of methane equals 86 tons of carbon dioxide.

For EPA’s report, it means that estimates of carbon dioxide equivalency associated with methane are more than half a billion metric tons too low, an error of 70%.  The EPA may be correct that there was a reduction in methane since 2011, but with such grossly inaccurate emissions reported, it seems like the hole we’re trying to dig out of is just getting deeper (this is confirmed by the latest studies finding that more fracking for gas not only won’t reduce carbon emissions, but will also undermine renewable energy).

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Total methane emissions reported by EPA in 2013 and carbon dioxide equivalency based on a global warming potential of 25 and 86. The difference is more than half a billion tons of carbon.

Another bombshell is that underground coal mine methane emissions increased by nearly 25% between 2012 and 2013.  The industry reported methane emissions equal to 41 million metric tons of carbon in 2013 (of course, with a global warming potential of 86, it would actually be more than 141 million metric tons).

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Coal mine methane emissions increased by nearly 25% between 2012 and 2013.

No matter how you slice it, though, the data shows that coal mines are responsible for nearly 20% of all methane emissions in the U.S., a staggering figure.

In case you’re wondering, where these gassy coal mines are located, the majority are in Appalachia, but a few mines in the West–namely the San Juan mine in northwestern New Mexico, the Westridge mine in Utah, and Arch Coal’s West Elk mine in Colorado–made the top 20.  The top emitter, the Walter Energy mine in Alabama, reportedly released nearly 5 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.  That’s more than an average coal-fired power plant.   Here’s the full list of gassy mines >>  

More than anything, the latest greenhouse gas reporting data confirms that we can’t afford to delay carbon reductions.  It’s why last week, WildEarth Guardians joined a coalition of organizations in calling on the Obama Administration to stay firm in its commitment to curtail methane from oil and gas operations, and it’s why we’re digging in more aggressively than ever on our challenges to more coal mining and burning, and more fracking, in the American West.

We have major challenges ahead, but also major opportunities.  It’s time to step it up.

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The San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico is fueled by the San Juan coal mine, one of the top emitters of coal mine methane in the United States. WildEarth Guardians just filed an opening brief in federal court to stop an expansion of this mine.

Smoggy Skies in the American West Point to Fossil Fuels

Benjamin Storrow with the Casper Star Tribune reported this past weekend on the prospect of eight Wyoming counties (effectively 1/3 of the state) falling into violation of federal limits on ozone, the key ingredient of smog.

The report coincides with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recent release of ozone data for the years 2011-2013 and a recent statement from agency staff that federal ozone limits–now set at 0.075 parts per million–should be strengthened to between 0.070 parts per million and 0.060 in order to effectively protect public health.  The agency is currently under court order to promulgate new ambient air quality standards for ozone in 2015.

The revelations piqued our curiosity about the broader impacts of stronger health standards for ozone in the American West.  Taking recently posted data from the Environmental Protection Agency, we mapped out which counties in the west are violating current ozone air quality standards and which counties would be in violation of stronger ozone standards, depending on where they’re ultimately set.  As the map below shows, the clean air landscape of the west stands to change dramatically.  More importantly, what the map below shows is that areas throughout the west are already experiencing unhealthy levels of smog.

You can check out an interactive version of this map here >>

Western Areas Violating Ozone Standards

Western U.S. Counties Violating Current and Proposed Ozone Air Quality Standards

The landscape stands in stark contrast to what the Environmental Protection Agency found in 2012.  As the map below shows, only a handful of areas in the west were violating ozone limits and designated “nonattainment” (a nonattainment designation under the Clean Air Act spurs a mandatory clean up).  Effectively, only parts of central and southern California, the Phoenix metro area in Arizona, the Denver metro area of Colorado, and a portion of western Wyoming were deemed to have unhealthy smog levels.

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Based on more recent data, it appears that a number of new areas are violating current standards, including Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and northwest Colorado and northeastern Utah.  More importantly, it appears that under the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed standards, the number of areas likely to be designated nonattainment would be greatly expanded, including areas in every state except Montana.  Put another way, the American West is facing a serious health crisis and an unprecedented smog clean up challenge.

Not exactly what you would expect for a region renowned for its big skies and clean air.

The big question, though, is what is the cause of this burgeoning smog problem?  While California has its unchecked urban development, cars, trucks, and industrial agriculture, in the interior west, booming oil and gas drilling and fracking is a key driver.  In fact, earlier this year, we put together a map showing the overlap between active oil and gas wells and areas likely to violate the Environmental Protection Agency’s new ozone standards.  The overlap is uncanny.

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Overlap between potential ozone nonattainment areas and active oil and gas wells in the western U.S.

The reason for this overlap is due to the fact that oil and gas drilling and fracking operations are huge sources of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, which are key ozone forming pollutants.  Take the Uinta Basin of northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado.  Recent studies found that oil and gas operations in this rural region release as much volatile organic compound pollution as 100 million cars, an absolutely shocking amount of pollution.  In Colorado, even with the adoption of recent rules to limit pollution, oil and gas operations are still predicted to release 64% of all volatile organic compounds by 2018.  Even in an urban region like Denver, oil and gas operations are projected to release more than 60% of all smog forming compounds, far more than all the cars and trucks in the area.

Even in areas without high ozone levels, drilling and fracking is filling the atmosphere with immense amounts of pollution.  Most recently, the Western Regional Air Partnership reported that oil and gas operations in the Bakken shale region of North Dakota stand to release 367,000 tons of volatile organic compounds by 2015.  That’s equal to the amount released annually from 27 million cars (according to the Environmental Protection Agency, an average car releases 27.33 pounds of volatile organic compounds annually).  This is in a region with a population of less than a million.

Certainly, in other parts of the West, like in Nevada, Salt lake City, Washington, and Oregon, the challenge has more to do with increasing population and urban development.  More people means more cars, more trucks, etc.  But whether linked to fracking or population, the fact is that the western United States is going to have to come to terms with the need to keep growth in check.

The looming smog crisis in the American West presents an opportunity to get it right for our health and future.  Without a doubt, we should be alarmed at the prospect of such a vast amount of the region falling into violation of ozone health limits.  However, the solution isn’t to bemoan the challenge, it’s to embrace it.

Its time for all states in the west to start taking steps to limit fossil fuel pollution, especially from fracking, and to keep growth and urban development in check.  Our goal everywhere should be to keep the west smog-free.

Interior Department: Carbon Costs “Misleading”

In July, the Obama Administration was called out over its utter hypocrisy in curtailing carbon pollution in the U.S.

On the one hand, the Administration says that delaying carbon clean up will cost us billions.  On the other, the U.S. Department of Interior, head by Secretary Sally Jewell, is selling millions of tons of coal in the American West and not only refusing to account for carbon costs, but defending their decisions in spite of the climate impacts.

Thankfully, we’re making some progress in reining in the Department’s unwillingness to share in the responsibility to combat climate change.

Just yesterday, a federal judge overturned a coal leasing decision in Colorado over the agency’s failure to assess the social cost of carbon emissions associated with the leasing.  The order comes on the heels of a June ruling where the court held Interior illegally refused to use the “social cost of carbon” protocol, an interagency method of assessing the cost of carbon emissions, when analyzing the environmental and economic impacts of leasing more coal.  The judge was especially perturbed that the agency touted the supposed economic benefits of more mining while completely downplaying (actually, outright denying) the climate costs, which the court noted could be as high as $1 billion (as the court observed, “in effect the agency prepared half of a cost-benefit analysis”).

Cognitive dissonance doesn’t even begin to explain the disconnect here.  What the Interior Department is doing is completely (and literally) undermining our efforts to combat climate change.  Even as President Obama empowers the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce greenhouse gases, Sally Jewell’s coal decisions are unleashing massive amounts of carbon.

Either President Obama isn’t really serious about curtailing carbon or the Department of Interior is completely out of line.  It doesn’t take a genius to know where the problem lies.

The federal coal leasing program has been called the “elephant in the room” that, unbelievably, has yet to be noticed.  Yet all indications are that Interior is well aware that coal leasing is detrimental to our climate.  What’s worse, everything indicates that they are deliberately turning their backs on the issue, going so far as to continue denying carbon costs.

Case in point, on August 15, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management approved 15.75 million tons of new coal mining in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.  Coal is mined for one reason, to be burned, and when burned, this coal stands to unleash 26 million metric tons of carbon pollution (in case there’s any question about the significance of this amount, it equals the annual carbon emissions of 5.4 million cars according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s handy carbon calculator).

So what did the agency have to say about the cost of these carbon emissions?  Complete denial.

In fact, in response to concerns over carbon costs, Interior not only argued that the social cost of carbon protocol is inappropriate for assessing the impacts of coal leasing (an assertion rejected by the federal court in Colorado), but argued that such an analysis would be “unbalanced” and “misleading” (see their decision at bottom of page 2 to page 3).

It gets worse.  For instance, while the Department argued that they are not required to do a cost-benefit analysis, and therefore not obligated to assess carbon costs, they actually did prepare a cost-benefit analysis that again, only touted the purported economic benefits of mining.  In the underlying Environmental Impact Statement for the lease, they estimated hundreds of millions increased revenue and dozens of new jobs (see Environmental Impact Statement at p. 3-160).  In other words, they put together the same “half of a cost benefit analysis” overturned by the federal court in Colorado.

Adding absurdity to the mix, they assert that the social cost of carbon impacts would be “negligible” when compared to the costs of carbon from coal nationwide or globally.  Of course, no actual analysis was completed to support this “negligible” claim and, not surprisingly, they didn’t take such a big picture view when assessing the supposed benefits of more coal mining (after all, using Interior’s logic, wouldn’t the addition of dozens of jobs be “negligible” when compared to all the jobs provided by other industries nationwide or globally?).

To underscore the absurdity, assuming the 26 million metric tons of carbon is produced in 2015, this would lead to costs as low as $260 million and as high as $2.8 billion (for 2015, estimated carbon costs range from $11 per metric ton to $109, depending on the discount rate).  Put another way, Interior is actually claiming that a cost of $2.8 billion is negligible.

Topping it all off, the agency continued to stand by its claim that, “The tools necessary to quantify climatic impacts from projects such as a lease modification are presently unavailable” (see Environmental Assessment at p. 27).  Yet the federal court in Colorado affirmed that there is a tool, the social cost of carbon protocol (see ruling at p. 17).

Why would Interior argue such deceit?  It’s unclear, but the only reason for the agency to describe a social cost of carbon analysis as “unbalanced” and “misleading” is because it would show that the cost of leasing coal isn’t worth it.

Ultimately, the Department of Interior is either one of America’s most dangerous climate deniers or the they’re truly of the mind that they must lease coal at any cost.  Either way, it’s clear that the agency has no intention of stepping up to address the carbon impacts of coal leasing.

To put it bluntly, the U.S. Interior Department isn’t ignoring the elephant in the room, they’re simply trying to hide it.

We’re making progress in cutting carbon, but so long as Sally Jewell and the Department of Interior keep flouting our nation’s commitment to safeguarding the climate, it’s clear we can never fully succeed.

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Saving our climate is as easy as keeping carbon underground, something the U.S. Interior Department has yet to embrace.

UPDATE:  On October 6, 2014, WildEarth Guardians filed its statement of reasons challenging the Interior Department’s latest coal leasing plans in the Powder River Basin.  Among other things, the appeal challenges Interior’s completely arbitrary and unsupported assertion that disclosing carbon costs would be misleading.  The statement of reasons calls on the Interior Board of Land Appeals to overturn the decision and compel a rational and accurate analysis of climate impacts.

Your Land is Fracked: The Untold Story of Drilling on Our Public Lands

Note: Tim Ream is WildEarth Guardians’ new Climate and Energy Campaign Director. He’ll be joining me in blogging here from time to time.  Enjoy his first post!  — Jeremy Nichols

I’ve spent a whole lot of days and nights in my life enjoying the beautiful public lands we have been blessed with across this nation. I’ve experienced the awe of waking in subalpine forests covered in new snow, incredible morning birdsong along desert riverbanks, and the diverse life and landscapes of myriad other wonderful places on our National Forests and on lands managed for us by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Still, my first night out with WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director, Jeremy Nichols, was brand new to me. We set camp in a coal-bed methane drilling field that was unlike anything I had ever seen on public lands.

Think of your favorite wild place and then imagine one of these plopped in every direction.

Think of your favorite wild place and then imagine one of these plopped in every direction.

I had just started my first week as Guardians’ new Climate and Energy Campaign Director and Jeremy decided I needed some intimate acquaintance with the land it was now my job to protect. Guardians’ vision is that our U.S. public lands should be completely free of fossil fuel development. After all, more than one in three Americans rely on public lands as a source of their drinking water. If you travel just about anywhere in this country, you surely drink water that originates on our public lands. The last thing any of us want is to have our families contaminated by chemical concoctions used to frack for oil and gas – often secret chemical combinations that companies refuse to identify to doctors or researchers.

 

Well pads don't just make your public lands hike ugly, they can kill you.

Well pads don’t just make your hike on public lands look ugly, they can kill you.

Along with clean water, we expect our National Forests and other public lands to be sources of clean air. Just the opposite is happening in many rural communities near frack jobs on our public lands. Rural communities in Utah and Colorado have already been federally declared as unhealthy air zones with fracking, oil and gas transport, and oil and gas processing the culprit for excessive smog. Air monitors in rural regions in some other Western states, otherwise free from industrial sources or heavy traffic except for oil and gas production, are also beginning to ring alarms over their decline in clean air. I personally had a hard time breathing in the worst of the areas we visited.

Great open spaces aren't so great when tracking invades.

Great open spaces aren’t so great when fracking invades.

But even if public lands oil and gas could be magically fracked (and nearly all oil and gas produced in this country nowadays is fracked) in some pristine way that didn’t pollute our air and drinking water, we’d still have to fight it. That’s because just about every serious scientist who has weighed in on global warming policy prescriptions agrees that the bulk of the fossil fuel left in the world has to be kept in the ground.

The simple truth is most fossil fuels must be left in the ground or we risk runaway global warming.

The simple truth is most fossil fuels must be left in the ground or we risk runaway global warming.

So, how are we going to lockdown hundreds of billions of dollars of fossil fuel that every greedy oilman and gas developer in the world wants to get their paws on? The same way we have created large open spaces free from industrial or residential development; the same way we have preserved landscapes big enough for bison and wolves; the same way we have kept forests uncut for miles in every direction. Our precious public lands, and the fossil fuels found under them don’t belong to the federal government. They belong to us; they’re our birthright as citizens. The government only manages them at our direction. Those are our fossil fuels. That’s our carbon. And the way I read the polls, most Americans don’t want that carbon burned up into our atmosphere, speeding the pace to an unlivable world of runaway global warming for our kids and grandkids.

The biggest most protected landscapes in our country are all on our public lands because that is where we the people have the most influence to protect them. So it only makes sense that the place we will have the most influence in locking down the first extensive sources of carbon, and thereby turning the tide on climate change, is on public lands that hold publicly-owned carbon. We have to keep the oil and gas and coal industries from burning our carbon and destroying our climate. And as the greatest historical climate polluter, it only makes sense that the U.S. has the responsibility to lead on this carbon lockdown issue by locking down our public lands fossil fuels first.

Your public lands or just another cash cow for Big Oil and Gas?

Your public lands or just another cash cow for Big Oil and Gas?

With that as our mission, Jeremy took me out for a tour of what we are up against, specifically focusing on oil and gas. It isn’t pretty. We did an 1800-mile loop from Denver up through southern Wyoming, through Utah’s Uinta Basin, down to northwestern New Mexico and then back to Colorado. Despite the distance, we still only saw a tiny fraction of public lands oil and gas drilling. In fact, the U.S. currently has more than 32 million acres under lease. That is an area of public lands fossil fuel development leasing bigger than the size of New York State. Thankfully, not all of it is being developed at this time, but that is only because oil and gas companies bid on and then hold these leased public lands in speculation. One of Guardians’ goals is to stop this lease speculation on public lands by Big Oil and Gas.

Checkerboard land ownership can put public lands fracking right next to farms and ranches.

Checkerboard land ownership can put public lands fracking right next to farms and ranches.

Despite lease speculation, the amount of active development is still huge. About 25% of fossil fuels burned in this country come from public lands, those are fossil fuels that you own. Think about that: the overwhelming majority of Americans–heck, even a majority of Republicans–have told pollster after pollster that we want the government to do more to stop global warming, but what the Obama Administration is doing instead is selling off the public’s fossil fuels to speed the rate of global warming. Sarah Palin’s “drill baby, drill” turned into Barack Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy and the result is undoing all other government efforts taken to stop global warming combined.

Obama's "all of the above" energy strategy is making global warming worse.

Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy is making global warming worse.

Jeremy and I traveled landscape after landscape riddled with gas wells, pump jacks, pipelines and processing plants. We saw hundreds of miles of new roads built across vast, previously unroaded landscapes, with the sole purpose to let Big Oil and Gas pull money out of the ground. There are huge sections of public lands that have an oil well pad every quarter of a mile in every direction for hundreds of square miles. Where there are gaps, projects are proposed to fill in the blank spaces. These well pads are eyesores, dangerous, and dominate the landscape. You can’t hunt near gas tanks. You won’t picnic next to toxic industrial facilities. And you don’t camp in well fields, maybe with the exception of Jeremy and me on a mission. For all intents and purposes, we haven’t just sold Big Oil and Gas our fossil fuels, we have given away our birthright of public land.

It has to stop. Now.

Picnic anywhere you like, but please keep the kids and pets out of the toxic waste.

Picnic anywhere you like, but please keep the kids and pets out of the toxic waste.

On these pages, Jeremy has been describing what Guardians has been doing to fight coal, oil, and gas development project by project throughout the West. We are going to step up that work, with an added focus on oil and gas. We will expand on recent court wins and we have a few novel legal approaches to help us take back our lands.

In addition, we have a bigger vision. What if the young and growing climate movement, the mature and experienced public lands movement, and the fiery and surging anti-fracking movement all joined forces to shut down one-third of all oil and gas fracking in one fell swoop? Guardians is hoping to catalyze this three-way movement marriage into the biggest threat the U.S. fossil fuel industry has ever faced. Taking back our carbon on our lands is a winnable fight and would be an incredibly powerful step turning the U.S. into a leader in addressing climate change.

Stay tuned to these pages.

And of course, you can help. Please support our work in protecting our drinking water, our air, and our climate by joining WildEarth Guardians and lending your support to kicking the fossil fuel industry off our public lands for good. Become a member or make a donation today.

I look forward to working with you on this incredibly important campaign. Check out more photos of our public lands fracking tour here. And thank you for your support.

Tim Ream

Climate and Energy Campaign Director

The author is unhappy with oil and gas drilling on public lands.

The author is unhappy with oil and gas drilling on public lands.

Floating with the Coal Trains on the Colorado River

It’s always an amazing experience floating the Upper Colorado River in the summertime.  It’s not a completely wild river, but it’s remote enough, free enough, and undisturbed enough that it makes for an incredible float, whether just for a day or for several.

But it’s kind of an odd float as well.  Here, beautiful mountains, vibrant river life, and awe-inspiring river flows contrast starkly with Colorado’s main east-west railroad line, which, among other things, carries miles of coal trains on a daily basis.

These trains haul millions of tons of coal from western Colorado and central Utah mines to power plants in the Midwest, southeast, and possibly even for export from the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s a crazy juxtaposition.  Here you have a river that is more threatened than ever because of climate change (one article characterized the threat as, “Nearly every climate change model puts a red bulls-eye on the Colorado River Basin”).  And right on its banks passing by en masse is the very carbon conduit fueling the climate change.

It’s a reminder of the hard work ahead of us in saving the American West from climate change.  For now, we make the best of it and whenever a coal train comes by, we wave to the engineer who gladly blows his train horn as he rumbles past.

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Coal train rumbles past rafters. 

 

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Coal train rumbling up the river, nearing Red Gore Canyon. 

 

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There’s something about a train, even if it’s monstrous noises completely disrupt the serenity of being on the river.

 

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Union Pacific locomotives proudly haul over a hundred coal cars at a time.

 

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 Our happy boat hoping for a future without carbon pollution and global warming.  We are, too.

Time for EPA to Come Clean on Methane

It’s only Wednesday and it’s already been a busy week on the issue of methane, a  greenhouse gas that’s like carbon on steroids and is released extensively in the production of fossil fuels:

  • There’s been ongoing coverage of our court victory last Friday overturning Arch Coal’s plans to expand its West Elk mine and in the process vent massive amounts of methane.  That ruling invalidated a U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management approval of Arch’s plans on the basis that the costs of carbon pollution, including the costs of venting methane gas, were ignored, a big victory for the climate.
  • And this week, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that newer gas wells being drilled into Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale are leaking more methane than wells drilled into other formations.  The study has major implications for shale oil and gas drilling and fracking across the nation, which is fast taking hold as the predominant form of oil and gas development.  Indeed, we just commented this week on the Bureau of Land Management’s plans to allow 5,000 wells to be drilled into the Niobrara shale formation of eastern Wyoming.

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Methane venting well at Arch Coal’s West Elk mine in western Colorado (click to see more pictures of what methane venting at coal mines looks like, including this video of methane venting in action)

There’s a lot going on around methane, but what’s disturbingly not being discussed is how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (and apparently other federal agencies, for that matter) are downplaying, if not covering up, the climate impacts of methane emissions.

Certainly, everybody recognizes that methane is a potent greenhouse gas, but what seems to be obfuscated is exactly how potent it is.

The measure of a greenhouse gases potency is also called its global warming potential.  In the case of methane, the Environmental Protection Agency has for many years universally presumed a global warming potential of 21, meaning that for one part of methane equals 21 parts of carbon dioxide.  But studies are consistently confirming that this estimate is too low, particularly when assessing the short-term climate impacts of methane emissions.

In fact, while studies are finding that over a 100-year period, the global warming potential of methane is more than 30 times that of carbon dioxide, they’re finding that in the short-term, methane may be as much as 105 times more potent than carbon as a greenhouse gas.

More recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (often referred to as the IPCC), probably the most authoritative (even if somewhat cautious) scientific body that is synthesizing climate information for policymakers and the public, reported methane global warming potentials under two scenarios:  the first, where climate carbon feedback is not accounted for the second, where it is.  The climate-carbon feedback factor refers to the fact that as carbon creates more warming, more greenhouse gas emissions are released.  For example, as permafrost melts, more methane is released from Arctic tundra.

Taking into account climate-carbon feedback (which is more reasonable and accurate given the very real feedback impacts of greenhouse gas-fueled warming), the IPCC reported in their most recent synthesis of climate science that methane’s global warming potential is 34 over a 100-year period and 86 over a 20-year period (you can download their report at climatechange2013.org at p. 714).  Below is the table showing the IPCC’s reported global warming potentials.

Global Warming Potential Over 20 Years Over 100 Years
Without Climate-Carbon Feedback

28

84

With Climate-Carbon Feedback

34

86

In spite of these findings, the Environmental Protection Agency continues to assume that methane’s potency is only 21 times that of carbon dioxide.

For instance, in the agency’s latest inventory of greenhouse gas emissions and sinks in the United States, which was released in April and presents 2012 data, they rely on a global warming potential of 21 (see their Executive Summary at p. ES-3).  In doing so, they report that coal mines and oil and gas operations (the fourth and first largest sources of methane in the U.S., respectively) release the equivalent of 222 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (total of 10.57 million metric tons of methane).

Yet, based on a global warming potential of 86, total carbon dioxide emissions due to methane from coal mines and oil and gas operations is actually more than 900 million metric tons, a more than four-fold difference.  

The table below shows the differences between EPA’s estimate of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from coal mines and oil and gas operations, based on the outdated global warming potential of 21,  and estimates based on the IPCC’s global warming potential factors.

Methane and carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (in million metric tons) from oil and gas operations and coal mines, based on EPA’s 2012 inventory of greenhouse gas emissions and sinks, released in April 2014, and IPCC global warming potential factors.

methane and co2e emissions

What this shows is that the climate impacts of methane are being significantly underestimated, in turn giving the impression that methane emissions from coal mines and oil and gas sources are not significant sources of carbon.  In fact, just based on methane along, this data shows that oil and gas and coal mines are the fourth and fifth largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., right behind power plants, transportation, and industrial fossil fuel combustion.

Certainly, the Environmental Protection Agency has not outright discounted the significance of methane emissions from oil and gas operations, but they have refused to acknowledge that methane from coal mines is worthy of any agency attention.

And although the agency last fall officially raised the global warming potential of methane from 21 to 25, this is a far cry from reflecting the real short-term climate impacts of unchecked methane emissions.  Furthermore, in doing so, the agency rejected establishing a global warming potential based on a 20-year timeframe, essentially turning its back on the fact that methane’s climate impacts are more significant over the short-term, rather than the long-term.

By downplaying the climate impacts of methane, the Environmental Protection Agency is undermining the urgency that should be driving efforts to cut emissions of this potent greenhouse gas.  The result is that other federal agencies, the Bureau of Land Management notable among them, continue to drag their feet in acknowledging the need for methane reductions and the cost of delaying action.

With President Obama himself calling for methane cuts nationwide, it’s critical that the Environmental Protection Agency get it right in curbing this potent climate threat.

Colorado Coal Welfare at its Worst

Arch Coal is poised for big breaks in Colorado, even as this giant coal company is sliding toward failure and facing an increasingly uncertain future.

The latest handout comes from the U.S. Forest Service, which last week finalized a plan to give Arch and other coal companies a special “exemption” to mine into Colorado’s backcountry.

There’s no beating around the bush on this.  The plan expressly sacrifices publicly owned wild forest lands (that means owned by all Americans) purely for Arch Coal’s financial benefit.  It’s a sad giveaway, especially given that these untrammeled wild places are truly one of a kind and really reflect what makes Colorado so special.

Like the Sunset Roadless Area, which skirts the iconic West Elk Wilderness.  Although WildEarth Guardians has been able to keep this area safe from Arch’s coal mining, the Forest Service’s giveaway ensures its destruction.

And as if the public lands giveaway wasn’t enough for Arch, the company’s also poised to get a break on its royalty payments.

Royalties of course, are what Arch pays you and me for the privilege of mining publicly owned coal.  Under the company’s latest request, the federal government would lose $3.1 million while Colorado would lose $1.75 million.

To boot, the request comes as Arch recently raised its CEO’s salary by 58%.  So not only are we losing money, we’re subsidizing a CEO pay increase.

Yet, in spite of these handsome handouts, Arch’s profits are still sliding downward.  Tumbling is how it was described in The Wall Street Journal.  And to top it all off, the coal giant was just stung by a Standard and Poor’s downgrade, from B+ to BB-.

The reason?  Declining demand for coal.

All the bailouts in the world can’t cover up the fact that coal is dying.  As Arch continues to tumble toward failure, one can only hope that these latest welfare payments in Colorado–our public lands and our public revenues–amount to nothing in the end.

The thought of subsidizing a giant coal company’s profits is bad enough.  But the thought of footing the bill for a coal company’s failure is outrageous.

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Adding insult to injury, Arch Coal vents more than $10 million worth of methane gas into the air every year from dozens of wells drilled above its West Elk coal mine in Colorado.  Arch has so far thwarted efforts to require the company to capture and utilize the gas.