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Methane Gas: Clear, Odorless, but 86x as Potent

Ohio Environmental Council, June 15, 2021

Author: Juliana Discher, OEC Methane Campaign Contractor

If you ask the average Ohioan about methane, they may describe it as the gas that comes from cow belches and flatulence or have a different rudimentary idea of it from their high school science class. This clear, odorless gas can often seem intangible or like an issue that is out of our control. But there is a lot that we can do to regulate this potent greenhouse gas, which is 86 times stronger than carbon dioxide, and some industry and political leaders are beginning to recognize that.

Most experts agree that cutting methane emissions is one of the most critical ways to avoid the worst effects of climate change. But methane emissions continue to rise: despite being in a global pandemic, 2020 was a record high year for methane emissions, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

This is an issue that hits close to home in Ohio, as one of the biggest methane leaks in U.S. history occurred right here in Belmont County. 60,000 tons of methane leaked after a natural gas well pad exploded in 2018. More methane was emitted from this incident than some European nations release in an entire year. One hundred residents had to be evacuated and some residents reported breathing issues, dizziness, and throat irritation after exposure.

Chronic exposure to air pollution can worsen serious health conditions including asthma, COPD, and lung cancer; lead to premature birth, birth defects, and developmental delays; and cause heart disease, obesity, kidney disease, liver dysfunction, and type 2 diabetes. A recent report from Physicians for Social Responsibility has even found a link between air pollution and cases of COVID-19.

While methane comes from both natural and human-caused sources, it is undeniable that we can and should hold the oil and gas industry accountable for these dangerous emissions. The energy sector—which includes coal mining, natural gas processes, petroleum systems, and stationary and mobile combustion—is the largest source of U.S. methane emissions. 

One of the most cost effective mitigation actions is to stop methane leaks from orphan wells. Ohio native and University of Cincinnati Professor Dr. Amy Townsend-Small has identified that uncapped, idle oil wells could be leaking millions of kilograms of methane each year into the atmosphere and surface water, which is the equivalent of burning 150 million pounds of coal annually. This value is 60% higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency inventory estimate, meaning that this is an issue that has been vastly underestimated and therefore ignored.

Further developing technology, like satellites which can detect methane leaks in real time, will also help hold polluters accountable. This technology can turn an invisible gas into a visible plume and identify the point source. Building tools and technology to cut methane pollution from new and existing oil and gas operations by 65 percent of 2012 levels by 2025 is not only necessary, it is achievable at a low cost.

Recent policy action has begun to address methane emissions and the issue has reentered the news cycle and political conversation. In April, members of the U.S. Senate passed a key resolution that uses the powers of the Congressional Review Act to restore methane emission safeguards on the oil and gas industry. Both Senator Sherrod Brown and Senator Rob Portman (who was one of three Republicans in support) voted in favor of this much-needed bill. 

Executive action by the Biden administration has also begun to address this issue. The Administration recently used its powers to implement an oil and gas leasing moratorium and promised to protect 30% of federal lands and oceans by 2030, which will bolster the fight against climate change, protect biodiversity and outdoor recreation, as well as promote economic growth. The American Jobs Plan commits $16 billion to cap abandoned oil and gas wells and mitigate abandoned mines. 

Cutting dangerous methane pollution was described recently as a low-hanging fruit, so why pass up on this ripe opportunity to take climate action? Now is the time to continue this conversation to ensure methane emissions aren’t skyrocketing year after year.

What can you do to help? Take action with us! If you would like assistance in submitting a letter to the editor or op-ed to your local newspaper or contacting your legislator about methane, please reach out to