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Conservation Science for a Healthy Planet

Methane spike over past decade likely caused by increased shale gas production in US, not cows and other livestock

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by Ellie Cohen November 14, 2017 Bonn, German at the UN Climate Meetings (UNFCCC, Conference of the Parties or COP23)

Today I attended a press conference with Professor Bob Howarth from Cornell’s Methane Project here at the UN climate meetings.  My quick notes are below.  You can review his highly recommended PowerPoint presentation here and read his press conference handout here.  You can also find addition information at his lab’s website here.

[Note: You can watch videos of most of the press conferences at COP 23 and other taped sessions at:]

From his lab’s research and from the literature (including his talking with the authors on recent literature), Howarth concludes that the natural gas and oil industry is probably contributing twice as much methane as animal agriculture.

Before 2005 no shale gas showed up in global monitoring of methane but now it makes up 60% of global methane and is the most likely candidate for the strong spike in the last decade – not cows and other cattle. This methane spike is showing up almost entirely from US, not other parts of the world (through 2012- that satellite is no longer operational; another one is supposed to be going up soon).

Dr. Howarth made an urgent call for a new approach to measuring methane isotopes (radiocarbon C14) to conclusively identify the sources so that we can quickly reduce this powerful greenhouse gas. He said even if we stopped all of our CO2 production today we’d still feel an impact for 30 to 40 years on global warming – CO2 remains in the atmosphere from 100 to 1000 years. Methane has its biggest impact immediately – within 10 years so reducing methane can have a quick impact on reducing global warming.

He said even the EPA inventory has an estimate of methane that’s way too low and that there is possibly some cover up the actual data (he said more about this afterwards off-camera.

NOTE: see this relevant InsideClimateNews article about a pivotal EPA study on how the US govt hid fracking dangers to drinking water that provided the rationale for exemptions that helped unleash the fracking boom and about how the science was suppressed to protect industry interests.).

Dr. Howarth said that the number of cows and cattle is lower than a decade ago in North America and in the US so he asked how do you reconcile the methane increase shown through c13 studies and satellite data [its fracking].

He also said that with increases in human population there will be increased demand for meat and more intense use of agricultural lands that would have a negative environmental impact. He said meat production is still a significant contributor to methane and that he believes we should eat less meat and have better handling of methane. He feels that how much methane cows produce is directly related to the type of food they eat.

He said that we’re feeding the world from roughly the same amount of land as in 1960 but doing it with a growing population will have more impact on the land and the environment.

Finally Dr. Howarth said this all goes to the heart of the issue around climate change and the idea of natural gas being a bridge to renewables. It releases more methane than coal.

I asked him afterward what he thought of holistic, prescribed grazing versus industrial cattle production. He said it was his understanding that grass fed is much better than industrial. He had 18 PhD grad students in his class last spring assess the literature and none of them came up with any clear answer. He said the literature is all over the place on this – as we know!

For me it also puts into question the GHG reductions touted by California where there are significant investments in fracking and natural gas.

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