Methane: A key to our changing climate

By Whitney Ricker, Climate Advocacy Intern, Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions

A recent study published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts a bleak future if nothing is done by governments and individuals to curb climate change. Vulnerable communities around the world are already experiencing the negative impacts of a changing climate, including drought, flooding, famine and increased natural disasters, all of which also contribute to migration and violence.

Climate change is caused by the greenhouse effect, which is usually associated with carbon dioxide. However, methane traps 86 times more heat than carbon dioxide. As of 2017, methane comprised 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and 60 percent of global methane emissions came from human sources.

In September 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it will roll back federal regulations that require natural gas companies to monitor drilling sites and minimize methane leakage. Supporters of the rollback claim it will allow for more drilling at lower costs. However, in addition to its contribution to climate change, methane pollution is also harmful to human health. Communities throughout the U.S. are already experiencing the negative effects of methane pollution.

Natural gas wells in the San Juan Basin, located in northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado, are some of the largest producers of natural gas in the nation. While this has brought money and job opportunities to the area, not everyone has benefitted equally. Local residents have detailed their struggle with adverse health impacts from methane pollution including dizziness, nausea and migraines. According to a 2014 NASA study, natural gas extraction has led to a 2,500 square mile methane cloud over the region.

This pollution is happening in an area where hundreds of old uranium mines are still contaminating the local landscape, especially on land belonging to the Navajo Nation. The mine contamination has led to increases in cancer rates, kidney failure and birth defects. Allowing methane pollution to continue (and likely increase) in this region will only add to hardships in already vulnerable communities.

NASA satellite imagery shows how much emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003-2009 (dark colors are lower than average; lighter colors are higher). The “methane bubble” over New Mexico and Colorado is in red. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan.

The Marcellus Shale, located in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, is the second largest natural gas producer in the United States and residents in that region have faced similar obstacles. While the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) reports that methane pollution levels tend to stay level from year to year, scientists at the Environmental Defense Fund argue that methane emissions are actually five times higher than what is officially reported, due to various loopholes in reporting regulations for natural gas companies. Residents near extraction sites have reported drinking water contamination and an increase in nausea and breathing difficulties. In June 2018, the Pennsylvania DEP issued regulations that require companies to conduct more inspections and repairs at newly installed wells; however, this regulation only applies to new wells and not the 11,000 wells currently in operation.

The EPA is accepting public comments on the proposed repeal of the methane pollution regulations until December 17, 2018. Urge the EPA to keep strong regulations in place to prevent further impacts to our climate and human health.

Find more resources on faith and climate change at The Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions (CSCS) is a collaborative initiative of Eastern Mennonite University, Goshen College, and Mennonite Central Committee to lead Anabaptist efforts to respond to the challenges of climate change.