It wasn’t so many years ago that many of us didn’t believe climate change existed. Others believed it was real but not caused by human activity, that it was a natural phenomenon, that our climate had undergone wide swings over time. No more. There is now nearly universal recognition of the reality of climate change and of the ways our actions increase the severity of its effects.
But while we’ve come to recognize the problem, we’ve not yet been able to settle on what to do about it. Some of us — often former deniers of climate change — say it’s too late to do anything. We should adapt — learn to live with greater temperature extremes, more and more intense hurricanes and tornadoes, floods caused by atmospheric rivers of rain and in the Western U.S., nearly year-round fire season. Others say we must act quickly to develop renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, or invest in cleaner burning fossil fuels, natural gas rather than coal, for example, or build new nuclear power plants using smaller and perhaps safer liquid sodium-cooled reactors.
In our disagreements over finding global solutions, we sometimes forget smaller but still helpful steps we can take. This was brought home to me when I learned about a recent methane venting operation conducted by Tallgrass Midstream at its Douglas gas plant. On Dec. 7, following a maintenance project that caused high oxygen levels, Tallgrass carried out five separate safety releases. The company reported to the Department of Environmental Quality a total of 2.1 metric tons of methane vented into the atmosphere. That figure, though, is substantially lower than what was reported by the United Nations Environment Programme’s International Methane Emissions Observatory. Using data from NASA’s Landsat 9 satellite corroborated by two European satellites, IMEO geospatial scientists recorded a 4.6-mile-long gas cloud originating from the Tallgrass Douglas plant, noting that such a cloud indicated a release of from 76 to 184 metric tons per hour of methane.
If the IMEO numbers are indeed accurate, Tallgrass underreported the emissions. DEQ says it can’t verify the satellite data and will independently verify the Tallgrass report. As methane is a powerful greenhouse gas with over 80 times the atmospheric warming influence of carbon dioxide, limiting its release is critical to minimizing climate change. And because there are questions regarding reporting of emissions, which leave us ignorant of the scope of the problem and so uncertain about corrective actions we should take, the Tallgrass venting is deeply worrisome.
Beyond avoiding unnecessary methane releases (DEQ assures the December venting was necessary, for safety reasons) and accurately reporting all releases, what could Tallgrass do in the future? Improve operations, fix leaks and be transparent about emissions. The International Energy Agency, a Paris based intergovernmental organization, estimates that the worldwide oil and gas industry can achieve a 75% reduction in methane emissions using current technologies to cut the frequency and volume of leaks. IEA figures also show that two-thirds of this reduction can be achieved at no net cost. Because of methane’s intense warming effect, such a reduction would be an immediate way to protect arctic sea ice and so limit both rising sea levels and changes in ocean currents and water temperature that lead to weather instability. Fixing leaks can play a critical role in reducing many of the most damaging effects of climate change.
Of course, the recent Tallgrass venting was not because of a leak. And the discrepancy between what Tallgrass reported and what the UN’s International Methane Emissions Observatory recorded leaves us uncertain as to the true scale of the event or if it indicates negligence. Still, while stopping leaks would not have prevented the recent release, stopping leaks is the single most effective way to keep methane from being introduced into the atmosphere. It’s part of a more comprehensive program Tallgrass could implement.
There are things the Department of Environmental Quality could do, too. One is to enforce reporting requirements on methane emissions. To this end, DEQ could require that Tallgrass install a vent meter. Then whatever the cause, we’d have an accurate picture of how much methane has been introduced into the atmosphere.
And me, what can I do? Even small changes can help — turning the heat down in the winter and the air conditioning up in the summer, living close to my work so I can walk or bicycle, turning out the lights when I leave a room.
DEQ, Tallgrass and we as individuals can all help limit the social and economic damage caused by climate change. We can act for the common good. And we can fix the leaks.