Chart: Methane emissions are a problem. Where do they come from?

The U.S. is the second-biggest emitter of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Oil and gas production is responsible for most of the emissions.
By Dan McCarthy

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Canary Media’s chart of the week translates crucial data about the clean energy transition into a visual format.

Combating climate change is so often synonymous with reducing carbon dioxide emissions that you might forget all about the other gas that’s baking the planet: methane, a short-lived but extremely potent greenhouse gas.

Global methane emissions rose last year, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency, and the U.S. — the second-biggest methane emitter after China — is a key contributor to that problematic trend.

But where exactly are all of the country’s methane emissions coming from? The short answer is the energy sector, per new data from the IEA’s methane tracker, but you can study the chart below for the longer answer.

Methane emissions behave differently than carbon dioxide emissions, though both warm the planet. Methane’s warming effects wear off quickly compared to CO2, which sticks around for centuries, but what it lacks in staying power, it makes up in potency: Methane has about 80 times the warming impact of CO2 over a 20-year period. That means it sets the pace for warming in the near term,” as the Environmental Defense Fund puts it.

In the U.S., the extraction and production of oil and natural gas — the latter of which is essentially just methane by another name — generate the majority of methane emissions. These mostly stem from either the practice of intentionally venting” methane into the atmosphere or from methane that inadvertently leaks into the air along any point in the supply chain.

Outside of the energy sector, agriculture produces the next-highest amount of human-caused methane emissions (we’ve all heard about the problems presented by cow farts), followed by waste (as organic matter like food scraps decomposes in landfills, for example).

The Biden administration is working on regulations to rein in methane emissions from the energy industry in particular: In January, it proposed rules for an Inflation Reduction Act program that would penalize large oil and gas producers for emitting methane above a certain threshold. Meanwhile, organizations including the Environmental Defense Fund are sending satellites into space to better track methane leaks from fossil fuel operations, as a growing body of scientific evidence finds that actual methane emissions are much higher than estimated.

And while these direct efforts to reduce methane emissions from the energy sector gain steam, renewable energy is surging onto the grid and electric vehicles are displacing fossil-fueled vehicles — trends that will, over time, help erode the need for methane-spewing energy infrastructure altogether.

Dan McCarthy is news editor at Canary Media.