This month marked the second anniversary of an environmental disaster in Ohio that was both monumental and invisible.
The fire and explosion at a natural gas fracking well in Ohio’s rural Belmont County blew more than 60,000 tons of colorless, odorless methane gas into the atmosphere before workers were able to cap the well. The fire burned for three days, but the methane continued to pour out invisibly for nearly three weeks. For anyone with a long memory or a Hulu subscription, the disaster recalled scenes of “Hellfighters,” the 1968 film in which a character played by the actor John Wayne struggled against a horrendous oil rig explosion.
The 60,000 tons of methane that the Ohio gas well spewed out in 20 days amounted to way more than the oil and gas industries of entire European nations release in a year. “It was one-quarter of the annual methane emissions coming from the American oil and gas industry,” said Steven Hamburg, the chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Yet the dire implications of the Ohio blowout were hardly noticed for months afterward, even though methane, over 20 years, can warm the earth 80 times more than the same amount of carbon dioxide would in that time. Carbon dioxide has been a major focus of the scientific thinking about global warming.
The Ohio blowout is only one example of methane’s menace.
Newly published research in the prestigious journal Nature has found that oil and gas production may be responsible for a far larger share of the levels of methane in the atmosphere
“We’ve identified a gigantic discrepancy showing that the industry needs to, at the very least, improve its monitoring,” said Benjamin Hmiel of the University of Rochester, who led the research. “If these emissions are truly coming from oil and gas extraction, production, and use, the industry isn’t even reporting or seeing that right now.”
Fossil fuel emissions from human activity were underestimated by 25% to 40%, according to the researchers.
The findings come as oil and gas companies face increased public pressure to rein in greenhouse gas emissions from their operations.
But the Trump administration is moving forward with a plan that effectively eliminates requirements that oil companies install technology to detect and fix methane leaks from oil and gas installations. The Environmental Protection Agency says the rollback would increase methane emissions by 370,000 tons through 2025.
The weakening of the methane rules is the latest in the march of environmental-policy rollbacks by the Trump administration designed to loosen regulations on industry.
Overall, carbon dioxide is the most significant greenhouse gas, but methane is a close second. It lingers in the atmosphere for a shorter time but packs a bigger punch while it lasts.
“The Trump EPA is eager to give the oil and gas industry a free pass to keep leaking enormous amounts of climate pollution into the air,” said David Doniger, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. “If the EPA moves forward with this reckless and sinister proposal, we will see them in court.”
Robert P. Bomboy has written for more than 60 national magazines and is the author of six books, including the novel “Smart Boys Swimming in the River Styx.” He taught for more than 30 years in colleges and universities, and he has been a Ford Foundation Fellow at the University of Chicago and in Washington, D.C.