A new study from researchers at Cornell and the Environmental Defense Fund has found that methane emissions from ammonia fertilizer plants are 100 times higher than the industry’s self-reported estimate.
With the United States on track to becoming the world’s leading exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) within five years, these newest findings could be catastrophic news. Methane, the primary component in LNG is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
This week has been bad news for proponents of LGN. On Wednesday the environmental group Food & Water Watch released a first-of-its-kind report detailing more than 700 new US facilities that have been recently built or proposed for development to “to capitalize off of a glut of cheap fracked gas.” Referring to fossil fuels as “failure gas” Food & Water Watch proposes that natural gas has been helping to “tip the scales of climate stability past the point of no return.”
The report, Fracking Endgame: Locked Into Plastics, Pollution, and Climate Chaos, is a new analysis that focuses on three key industries involved in the US fracking boom: “the petrochemical and plastics industries that use natural gas liquids as a key feedstock for their manufacturing; gas exporters building liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals to ship gas overseas; and natural gas-fired power plants.”
These industries work together on the proliferation of plastics plants to capitalize on fracking, pushing natural gas exports to raise domestic prices, and the construction of new fracked gas-fired power plants.
Food & Water Watch warns that the fracking industry relies on political allies for their operations, leading to pending federal legislation that, if passed, could provide billions of dollars in support for natural gas infrastructure.
The report was followed two days later in the report “Estimation of Methane Emissions From the U.S. Ammonia Fertilizer Industry Using a Mobile Sensing Approach.” Researchers on the project used a Google Street View car equipped with a high-precision methane sensor to measure emissions from ammonia fertilizer plants. The results showed that the true levels were 100 times higher than the fertilizer industry’s estimates as well as being “substantially higher than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimate for all industrial processes in the United States.”
“Natural gas is largely methane, which molecule-per-molecule has a stronger global warming potential than carbon dioxide,” said John Albertson, co-author of the report and professor of civil and environmental engineering. “The presence of substantial emissions or leaks anywhere along the supply chain could make natural gas a more significant contributor to climate change than previously thought.”
“We took one small industry that most people have never heard of and found that its methane emissions were three times higher than the EPA assumed was emitted by all industrial production in the United States,” said Albertson.
Researchers chose to focus on the fertilizer industry as they use natural gas as both a fuel and as one of the main ingredients for ammonia and urea products. Plants that produce ammonia fertilizer are usually located near public roadways so researchers could easily detect downwind emissions with mobile sensors.
The team discovered that, on average, 0.34% of the gas used in the plants is emitted to the atmosphere. Scaling this emission rate from the six plants to the entire industry suggests total annual methane emissions of 28 gigagrams – 100 times higher than the fertilizer industry’s self-reported estimate of 0.2 gigagrams per year.
“Even though a small percentage is being leaked, the fact that methane is such a powerful greenhouse gas makes the small leaks very important,” said Joseph Rudek, co-author and lead senior scientist at Environmental Defense Fund. “In a 20-year timeframe, methane’s global warming potential is 84 times that of carbon dioxide.”