Environment

Startling study finds US fertilizer industry emits 100 times more methane than estimated

Startling study finds US ferti...
Research suggests the fertilizer industry's methane emissions is three times higher than the EPA assumed was emitted by all industrial production in the United States
Research suggests the fertilizer industry's methane emissions is three times higher than the EPA assumed was emitted by all industrial production in the United States
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Research suggests the fertilizer industry's methane emissions is three times higher than the EPA assumed was emitted by all industrial production in the United States
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Research suggests the fertilizer industry's methane emissions is three times higher than the EPA assumed was emitted by all industrial production in the United States

A disturbing new study from researchers at Cornell University and the Environment Defense Fund has independently measured methane emissions from a number of ammonia fertilizer plants. The startling results suggest methane emissions are 100 times higher than industry estimates, and three times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency's estimate for all industry methane emissions in the United States.

Although the volume of methane emitted into the atmosphere by humans is much less than the amount of carbon dioxide released, it is a significantly more potent greenhouse gas – it is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide and some suggest around 25 percent of manmade global warming is caused by methane emissions.

This new study set out to add some much needed objective measurements to an understudied sector of methane emissions: industrial users of natural gas. The majority of prior research has examined methane emissions at earlier points in the natural gas supply chain, including measurements at points of production and distribution. Methane emissions have also begun to be effectively tracked in residential and commercial areas.

To explore methane emissions from industrial users of natural gas the researchers used new methane-sensing equipment recently installed into some Google Street View cars. Fertilizer factories were identified as targets as they are a major user of natural gas, and six representative factories were selected, out of around two dozen in the United States. The sensor vehicles traveled on public roads near the factories to quantify downwind methane emissions escaping due to leaks, incomplete combustion, or inefficient chemical reactions during fertilizer production.

The results were incredible, with an average of 0.34 percent of all natural gas used in the factories found escaping into the atmosphere. The study then scaled this number up to all fertilizer manufacturing in the United States, calculating annual methane emissions to be 28 gigagrams. The industry reportedly only estimates its methane emissions to be 0.2 gigagrams per year. The EPA currently claims all industrial processes and product use in the United States produce a total of 8 gigagrams of methane emissions.

"We took one small industry that most people have never heard of and found that its methane emissions were three times higher than the EPA assumed was emitted by all industrial production in the United States," says John Albertson, co-author on the study. "It shows us that there's a huge gap between a priori estimates and real-world measurements."

This is not the first time in the last few years scientists have pinpointed errors in measuring real-world methane emissions. From underestimating methane emissions in the Arctic and discovering water reservoirs are releasing 25 percent more methane than predicted, to finding cattle emit 11 percent more methane than previously estimated, the bulk of these studies are revealing the scale of methane emissions is larger than anyone expected.

John Albertson suggests the recent growth in natural gas as a perceived environmentally-friendly alternative to more traditional "dirty fossil fuels" has made the tracking of methane emissions something of urgent importance.

"…natural gas is largely methane, which molecule-per-molecule has a stronger global warming potential than carbon dioxide," says Albertson. "The presence of substantial emissions or leaks anywhere along the supply chain could make natural gas a more significant contributor to climate change than previously thought."

The research was published in the journal Elementa.

Source: Cornell University

13 comments
paul314
So that "climate-friendly" alternative to coal and oil is potentially much worse, in a time when it's crucial to minimize greenhouse forcing? Who could have seen that one coming.
VincentWolf
So were screwed right? Since we can't stop producing the fertilizers and the industry won't agree with these results and will fight for hundreds of years that this report is in error and their not responsible. Just like the cigarette industry. Mankind let the genie out of the bottle when they created 'capitalism' which is just another word for 'suicide'.
Howe
VincentWolf - Gosh dang evil capitalism! Just curious, what method do you believe we should live by?
rude.dawg
So if the US fertilizer industry emits 100 times more methane than estimated, then doesn't that mean that methane may not be as big a factor as we thought? Won't that mean that methane is just a hundredth as potent a greenhouse gas as we thought? What happens if we realise anthropogenic greenhouse gases are actually a hundred times more than estimated? Won't that mean they're only a hundredth as potent as we thought?
bhtooefr
@rude.dawg: It's also worth noting that global fossil fuel CO2 emissions in 2018 were estimated at 37.1 Gt (or Pg). 28 Gg of methane, or at the 84x GWP given, 2.352 Tg CO2 equivalent emissions, is a tiny, tiny fraction of that relative to predictions - it's equivalent to 0.006% of the global CO2 emissions. But, if so much of this is just leakage, this is some low-hanging fruit to deal with, at least.
MartinVoelker
Those sensor vehicles are amazing, a scientist friend from NOAA uses them regularly for field work. James Balog's new film "the human element" also showcases one. The precision and sensitivity is astounding. Too bad their results are not so benign.
Nobody
I'm a little suspicious of these numbers. If there are only two dozen plants and this is such a hazard, why don't they monitor ALL of them??? Why are the results in grams while CO2 is usually in tons??? To make the numbers sound bigger and more ominous??? Why are they using a Google car??? Since this is measuring leaks, are six plants actually representative??? Given the possible interference of cattle operations, dairy farms, and cross country gas pipelines, how random was the data??? I don't doubt there could be a problem that needs more study but the way this is presented smells.
Robt
@VincentWolf Autonomous farm vehicles will soon be spraying pesticides with pinpoint accuracy, reducing the quantity used by almost 80%. Fertilizer application is more involved but hopefully that won’t be too far behind.
christopher
SICK TO DEATH of climate morons. Do the math !!! ALL that Methane is 0.0000000000000001% of the problem, and there is a 99.99999999999999% chance that even if we did 100.000000000000% of everything we possibly coiuld to fix the problem, it would ake 0.00000000000% difference to the dierction of the climate. In all seriousness - go look at the SCALE of the WHOLE PROBLEM. It's big. Very big. Like - quite a lot bigger than you think. Bigger, in fact, than you can even comprehend. Nobody likes how big that problem is, but, like it or not, you can't do anything to change it. That's another thing nobody likes, but pretending otherwise isn't helping. We may as well get everyone to blow at the sun to try and move it away a bit - that's got the same probability of making a difference.
EZ
In response to Mr. Howe. It's hard to say how to make capitalism go away but maybe we can make it more responsible. Since most capitalistic ventures are done by large corporations that have the capital to pursue new products and processes, we can't eliminate them. However, maybe they can be made more responsible so they don't destroy the ground we walk on, such as making each corporate board member personally liable if it can be proven that their corporation took actions to jeopardize planet earth. Maybe they would be a little more conscientious of their fellow earth inhabitants welfare. Just a thought.