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July 4, 2021 Plugging Leaks


Most of the focus on cutting emissions of greenhouse gases has been on the reduction of CO2 emissions by cutting the use of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas; there are greenhouse gasses that are more potent than carbon dioxide.  One of the biggest culprits is methane which is about 30 times more potent than CO2 but fortunately only stays in the atmosphere for about 9 years. 


There are multiple sources for methane which includes leaks from extraction and refining processes such as old oil wells that have not been capped properly, Leaks from natural sources of methane, and methane that is created from agricultural processes. 


The EPA estimates that there are 3.2 million abandoned oil wells in the USA and each of these can leak methane equivalent to the greenhouse gas put out by 600 cars.  It is estimated that preventing these leaks quickly could slow the pace of global warming considerably.  This could be a big win in trying to keep global warming to below 2 degrees centigrade.


Well Done Foundation is currently working on capping abandoned oil wells in Montana and has pilot projects in Louisiana and Pennsylvania.  They sell carbon offset certificates and use the money to plug old oil wells stopping them from leaking methane.  This is actually a carbon offset program that has a direct and large impact on global warming.  Unfortunately, right now the number of wells they have been able to cap is quite small but as more companies try to become carbon neutral, we may see the pace pick up.


Methane leaks also occur at storage facilities, gas pipelines, and oil refineries.  Finding these leaks and fixing them is quite a challenge.  Fortunately, countries are now launching satellites that can identify methane leaks so that they can be plugged faster.  This effort needs to be expanded and companies need to be held accountable for leaks that are not plugged in a timely fashion.


Another source of emissions of methane comes from natural sources.  One place here in LA that I like to visit occasionally is the La Brea Tar Pits.  Front and center is a large lake, and if you watch the lake carefully you will suddenly see a large disturbance in the water.  This is caused by the release of a large bubble of methane from the heavy oil gilsonite that lies close to the surface at the tar pits. Leaks like this are occurring around the world and the only way we can really deal with this is to capture the methane and sequester it.


Another source of methane release is from the natural decay of plant materials.  This occurs in several places but the most worrying is the artic where global warming is causing the frozen tundra to thaw.  There is a large amount of plant material that has been frozen for thousands of years.  As this material thaws it decomposes releasing methane into the atmosphere.  The best way to prevent this is to stop the climate from warming so that the tundra no longer melts.


Emissions of methane also occur in landfills as organic refuse decays.  The best answer to this is of course to produce less waste and this is going to become more important if we are to maintain a sustainable environment.  In some cases, methane gas emissions from landfills have been captured and used for power generation.  This is considered a renewable source of energy as resulting CO2 can be absorbed again by plants.


In the previous article I went into detail about how agriculture was a big source of methane.  One of the biggest sources is the emissions from cows and other ruminants when they belch.  Researchers in Australia have found that adding a small amount of Asparagopsis, a chemical compound found is some seaweeds, can reduce these emissions by as much as 80%.  Research is continuing to try and find other sources that will reduce methane emissions in agriculture.


Preventing greenhouse gases from leaking into the atmosphere is a good way to fight global warming in the short term.  It will not be cheap though.  Imagine the cost to cap millions of old oil wells, and to cap currently producing wells properly when they close down.  It is something that we have to do though if we are to really stop the worst effects of global warming.


Next, I will talk about population.


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