A primer on methane (and cow flatulence)

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A new study has found that methane leaks in several Northeast cities, including Boston, are responsible for as much as twice the emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas as previously thought, as the Globe reported on Thursday. Environmental advocates said the study, which included researchers from Harvard University, was a reminder that states and utilities must redouble their efforts to repair leaks.

Here is a refresher on methane and its impact.

What is methane?

Methane is the principal component of natural gas. A significant source of human-made methane emissions is fossil fuel production. For example, methane is a key byproduct of the rapidly increasing global extraction and processing of natural gas. But biological sources, including wetlands and livestock, have also been implicated, as have decomposing waste in landfills.


Why should we be worried about it?

Methane is a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas that, along with carbon dioxide, is considered a main driver of global warming, scientists have concluded. If methane leaks into the air before being used — from a leaky pipe, for example — it absorbs the sun’s heat, warming the atmosphere. For the first 20 years after its release into the atmosphere, it is about 86 times as powerful as carbon dioxide at trapping heat.

How can methane emissions be curbed?

In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized the first national rule to directly limit methane emissions from oil and gas operations. But such standards have been under attack from the Trump administration, which in 2017 ended a requirement that oil and gas producers report methane emissions. In Massachusetts, lawmakers last year required utilities to accelerate their efforts to repair more than 16,000 leaks in the state’s aging pipelines. The law also required utilities to expedite the patching of so-called “superemitting” leaks, which are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the emissions.


OK, now let’s get to the cow burps (and flatulence).

Cow flatulence contributes to global warming. But cow burps are worse for the climate, scientists say. Methane emissions from cattle are belch-focused because the gas is produced near the start of their digestive system and comes up when they regurgitate their food to chew the cud. Research is underway on methods to genetically modify cattle to produce less methane. Cargill, the world’s largest supplier of ground beef, recently announce a plan to cut methane in its herds by focusing on cattle grazing, feed production, reducing food waste, and innovation.

Sources: News reports, Environmental Defense Fund