Commercial natural gas was likely major factor in late-20th century stabilization
Increased capture of natural gas from oil fields probably accounts for up to 70 percent of the dramatic leveling off seen in atmospheric methane at the end of the 20th century, according to new UC Irvine research being published Thursday, Aug. 23, in the journal Nature.
“We can now say with confidence that, based on our data, the trend is largely a result of changes in fossil fuel use,” said chemistry professor Donald Blake, senior author on the paper.
Methane has 20 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, although CO2 is filling the atmosphere in far larger amounts. After decades of increases due to worldwide industrial and agricultural activity, the tapering off of methane from the 1980s through 2005 was remarkable. Scientists have long wrestled with the cause.
Blake and his team, who have conducted the world’s longest continuous methane and ethane sampling, said close scrutiny of their data shows that the major factor was most likely the trapping and sale of natural gas for use as a fuel source, which sharply reduced the skyward venting and flaring of methane from oil fields. Methane is the main ingredient in natural gas.
“It used to just be burned off as a waste product,” said lead author Isobel Simpson, a UCI research associate. “The reason this is important is because methane is a potent greenhouse gas, second in importance only to carbon dioxide. We can’t make real progress on climate change without tackling carbon dioxide, but bringing methane under control would certainly help.”