In the age of impeachment, it's easy to tune out of all news — even important science news. Don't be that cave person.
Otherwise, you might miss things like the fact that the first satellite designed to continuously monitor the planet for methane leaks made a startling discovery last year: A little known fracking gas-well accident in the Appalachian corner of Ohio was actually one of the largest methane leaks ever recorded in the United States.
The New York Times reported the story Monday, after a Dutch-American team of scientists published their space technology findings in the scholarly Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Their research, and the new satellite, mark a step forward in using space technology to detect methane leaks from oil and gas sites worldwide.
This is important because methane is an invisible-to-the-human-eye but potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. It's also important because methane releases like the one in Ohio are difficult to predict and could be far more widespread that previously thought. And as scary as this finding sounds, it's great news for proactive leak work.
When burned for electricity, natural gas is cleaner than coal, producing only half the carbon dioxide of coal. But if methane escapes into the atmosphere before being burned, it can warm the planet more than 80 times as much as the same amount of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
The Belmont, Ohio, blowout in February 2018 at a natural gas well run by an Exxon Mobil subsidiary released more methane than the entire oil and gas industries of many nations do in a year, the research team found. On the ground, it triggered the evacuations of about 100 residents within a one-mile radius while workers plugged the well.
The well operator, XTO Energy, said it couldn't determine how much gas leaked, but the satellite monitoring could. The satellite's measurements showed that in the 20 days it took for Exxon to plug the well, about 120 metric tons of methane an hour were released — twice the rate of the previous largest known leak from an oil and gas storage facility in Aliso Canyon, California, in 2015.
Steven Hamburg, a New York-based scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, which had been collaborating on the satellite project, told The Times that gas and well workers can't manage what they don't measure. The satellite offers a measure. The next challenge is how to more quickly sift through the tens of millions of data points the satellite collects each day to identify methane hot spots.
But don't be lulled by the breakthrough.
Good science without good environmental policy and good government can't really help us.
The policy and government part often go hand in hand, but in Trump era they are holding hands to thwart good science.
In November, a New York Times investigative news and photo team used airborne measurement equipment and advanced infrared cameras to expose six so-called super emitters in a West Texas oil field.
Operators of the sites identified by The Times are among the very companies that have lobbied the Trump administration, either directly or through trade organizations, to weaken already loose regulations on methane. These Texas companies, along with oil-industry lobby groups that represent the world's largest energy companies, are fighting rules that would force them to more aggressively fix methane emissions.
And did we mention that two of those major lobbyists are now administrators of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?
In the coming new year, the Trump administration expects to move forward with a plan that would effectively eliminate Obama-era and older requirements that oil companies install technology to detect and fix methane leaks from oil and gas facilities. EPA's own estimates indicate the rollback would increase methane emissions by 370,000 tons through 2025. That's enough leaked methane — if harnessed — to power more than a million homes for a year.
Think about this. If a couple of reporters with an infrared camera can find six of these leaks and the waste they represent, why can't the oil and gas companies?
They can, of course. The rub is the money it would take to fix the leaks. Clearly, corporate decisions have been made that the lost gas is cheaper than the fix.
Of course, it's not cheaper than the land and the crops and the lives lost due to the effects of climate change.
But don't let yourself be put off by glum and depressing political news. See the opportunity in science. Then vote and get even.