Methane is the more destructive of the two major greenhouse gases. 40 percent escapes naturally into the atmosphere through bogs, other wetlands, or volcanoes. Humans are responsible for the remaining 60 percent of emissions in the oil and gas industry, agriculture and the waste industry. However, it is surprisingly often unclear how much methane we are blowing into the atmosphere. Companies are not obliged to record their emissions everywhere. Satellites have only been helping to detect cracks or leaking valves in huge pipeline networks for a few years. Countries like Romania or Malaysia therefore do not measure their emissions, only estimate them. "These are generic data of which it is unclear whether they are representative," explains Stefan Schwietzke. Nevertheless, the methane expert from the Environmental Defense Fund is convinced that we are not fighting the climate crisis blindly, but rather effectively: "We know the emission processes in the various industries and possibilities for containment," he says confidently in ntv's "climate laboratory". "Half of the emissions could be saved in the oil and gas industry at no cost."
ntv.de: When it comes to methane, many people immediately think of cattle and cows belching. Is that the main source of global emissions?
Stefan Schwietzke: Unfortunately, there are many main sources. First of all, it has to be said that about 60 percent of global emissions come from human activities. There it's roughly equal parts fossil fuels, agriculture, and waste.
Are cows considered a human activity?
Yes, because of course we manage them.
And with the remaining 40 percent, are we talking about natural processes that release methane?
These are mostly wetlands or geological seeps such as volcanoes. Forest fires also cause methane emissions. They are sometimes counted among human activities as well, but of course they existed before our time.
When it comes to human activities, the gas industry is seen as a climate-friendly bridge compared to other fossil fuels such as oil or coal. Is that correct? Because methane is a huge problem for global warming, especially in the short term.
The CO2 emissions are about half as high compared to coal when burning gas. That's the rationale. However, this ignores the fact that methane escapes during gas production and use.
Is that included in the calculations of the federal government?
These methane emissions are included in the emission reports of the German government. But apart from a few components, methane can ultimately be almost equated with natural gas. Germany is one of the major importers: around 90 percent of the gas products we consume are produced outside Germany and, to a large extent, outside the EU. A large part of the value chain - exploration, production, refinement, transport, transmission and of course use - is not found in the German reports.
How do we know how big our emissions actually are? In the case of cows, the output has been overestimated for years. And in the gas industry, no one stands by with a meter and tells us how much is escaping or being lost.
That would be desirable, but is increasingly the case with satellites. In any case, the measuring devices are not the problem, there are extremely precise instruments. For a volume of air with a billion molecules, they can say whether there are 2000 methane molecules in it or 2001. This is recorded either directly at the source or via so-called atmospheric measurements that take place nearby and have to be modeled before one can say: So many tons of methane were emitted. That's the ideal case, but that doesn't happen often. In many cases, the emission is calculated as in the case of the Nord Stream pipeline explosion. Even if you don't know the delivery quantities, you can use the pressure to determine how much gas was in the line. However, there are uncertainties: the pipeline lay on the seabed. How much methane has been lost en route to the sea surface?
In the water there are microorganisms that feed on methane.
They wouldn't be bad in the atmosphere.
(laughs) Unfortunately, methane is not broken down in the atmosphere by biological, only chemical processes. But back to the emissions: measuring them would be ideal. If this is not possible, it will be charged. If that doesn't work either, a lot is appreciated - for example in Romania. In many cases, they do not have their own data to collect.
So even the EU doesn't know exactly how much methane it actually emits?
There are such cases in the EU, but most outside. For its estimate, Romania uses emission factors provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These are averages for different countries. Generic data where it is unclear whether they are representative. They are then in a report, but actually they are estimates. There is also the fourth category, non-detection. This includes unknown sources of methane or emission events that are not known to exist. Before the satellite revolution, we were totally unaware of many large emissions or leaks. This data has only been collected in recent years.
Does "estimate" and "do not record" make a big difference? After all, Romania cannot set climate targets with data that we do not know whether they are correct.
You hear this tenor more often: How can it be that methane reductions are being pushed at the World Climate Conference if you don't know exactly whether the data is correct? However, we know that the methane emissions are too great. There have been long-term measurements that provide information on global emissions for several decades. We also know the sources of the various industries and even ways we can curb these emissions. In the oil and gas industry for example by repairing leaks.
You can also find them more frequently in or on German pipelines.
Yes, but that's just part of it. Natural gas is also simply released during so-called venting. This can be caught and used as well. You can also install better valves to prevent methane from escaping. What we need is more data on the methane budgets of individual countries and companies.
For negotiations, but also in order to be able to act and decide: These emissions must first be stopped.
How are the emissions allocated to the individual countries? So far, our natural gas has mainly been delivered via pipelines that run through several countries. In the future, transport will take place on ships across the sea. Who is responsible if methane escapes there?
With the pipelines, it's simple. In the event of a leak, the place where it is located applies. As a result, German methane emissions from oil and gas transport are so small and negligible: the vast majority of them occur outside Germany's borders.
For LNG tankers transporting liquefied gas, I honestly do not know in which country emissions are reported. The companies that organize and carry out transport and deliveries are only obliged to record them in a few countries, such as Norway. Some companies have also been reporting their emissions voluntarily for a number of years - fortunately, because the moment they start measuring, they learn which processes emit the most methane.
How can this recording be improved?
Countries like Germany, the USA or Great Britain are already reporting in great detail wherever possible. There is still some catching up to do in terms of measurement methods and scope. How big are the uncertainties? Is this data representative of an industry? My field of work is rather international. I see the most potential in countries with minimal reporting, where you really can't speak of measurements. That's the bigger problem.
How many countries does this affect?
dozens. Definitely too many countries for one. In the last quarter I was in Malaysia to talk to the government, companies and universities and see: How is the situation in other countries, like Germany? What options are there for recording methane emissions? What can be done to reduce them? A lot of work, but an awful lot is happening.
Do states like the United Arab Emirates, which make a lot of money from the extraction and production of gas, show any interest in properly recording their emissions?
That is different. We are currently preparing a measurement project in Oman, which will be our entry into the Middle East. People there are open to our plans to measure more and report better. Of course, also to save money, because as I said: methane can almost be equated with natural gas. The more lost, the less you can sell.
Shouldn't companies generally know if their pipes have cracks and holes or are leaking gas for some other reason? I know how much gas I pumped in. If the same quantity does not arrive at the end, it is not a question of recording emissions.
To do this, you have to be aware that there is a leak. Methane is also an invisible and odorless gas that has to be produced first. A large part of the emissions is caused by this. And unfortunately there is no meter directly on the pipe that records everything with pinpoint accuracy.
It sounds like that would be very useful.
Even then, the question would remain: Who is in charge of the methane? The one who produces the gas? The one who owns ship or pipeline? Or the one who buys it?
Where would you start reducing emissions - with the cows or in the gas industry?
In the gas industry. Globally, emissions from cows are roughly the same as emissions from the entire oil and gas industry. We're talking about 70 to 80 million tons a year. When it comes to reductions, however, you have to differentiate between what is technically possible but costs money and what can be achieved economically without incurring additional costs. The state of the art says: In the oil and gas industry, half of the emissions can be saved without additional costs.
That would be the leaks?
Exactly, but that also applies to venting, i.e. releasing gas. That can be caught. With cows you can save only two percent of the emissions without additional costs.
Because you can't stop them from burping and farting?
Yes, that will be difficult. If we also use technical possibilities, even 80 percent of emissions can be saved in the oil and gas industry. With the cows it would be at least 30 percent. But we still have to find investors for that.
Clara Pfeffer and Christian Herrmann spoke to Stefan Schwietzke. The conversation has been shortened and smoothed for better understanding.
(This article was first published on Sunday, January 08, 2023.)