Data in KIT Methane Study Contradict Researchers’ Conclusions

A new study published recently in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics further trumpets the tired narrative that oil and gas production is responsible for a spike in global methane emissions since 2007 –and it does this even though the study’s data do not even support that narrative.

Researchers from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany found 61 percent of the rise in global methane emissions between 2007 and 2014 are biogenic methane emissions. This means a vast majority of the increase in methane emissions is from natural or agricultural causes and cannot be attributable to oil and gas. But that didn’t keep the researchers from headlining a press release on their own website with this title: “Oil and Natural Gas Boom Causes Methane Emissions to Increase.”

The researchers came to this conclusion despite having nearly identical data as a recent study by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWAR) in New Zealand, which found a vast majority of the global rise in methane emissions since 2007 are attributable to biogenic sources such as agriculture, rather than oil and gas production.

Co-author Ralf Sussmann, an associate professor at the Atmospheric Environmental Research Division of KIT’s Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research, tried to explain his research team’s polar-opposite conclusion compared to the NOAA/NIWAR report this way:

“Although latest studies of biogenic sources by colleagues from New Zealand revealed that the main contribution to the renewed methane concentration increase after 2007 is of biogenic origin (Schaefer et al. in Science), this is in agreement with our result of an at least 40 percent share of thermogenic emissions.”

The study also acknowledges other reports attributing a bulk of the rise in methane emissions to biogenic sources:

“Several recent studies provide pieces of evidence that the renewed methane increase is most likely driven by two main factors: (i) increased methane emissions from tropical wetlands, followed by (ii) increased thermogenic methane emissions due to growing oil and natural gas production.”

So the fact that the researchers’ surmise oil and gas is somehow to blame for a rise in global methane emissions – when their own research indicates 39 percent can be attributed to oil and gas while the other 61 percent is due to natural or agricultural emissions – is more than a little mystifying.

Interestingly, the researchers’ methods make a little more sense than their conclusions.  The researchers tracked the ratio of methane to ethane, a short lived gas created along with methane from thermogenic sources (burning biomass, fossil fuel production, etc.) by using long-term solar Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) measurements of methane in combination with ethane at two observatory sites, the Zugspitze summit located in Germany and the Laudner summit in New Zealand. Both sites showed an increase in global methane emissions since 2007, according to the researchers:

“Long-term trend analysis reveals a consistent renewed methane increase since 2007 of 6.2 [5.6, 6.9] ppb yr-1 (parts-per-billion per year) at the Zugspitze and 6.0 [5.3, 6.7] ppb yr-1 at Lauder (95% confidence intervals).”

The fact that the researchers found methane emission increases at both observatory sites is significant. Historically, about 70 percent of all methane emissions are located in the northern hemisphere, while 80 percent of ethane emissions (which are associated with fossil fuels) occur in the northern hemisphere, meaning a majority of northern hemisphere methane emissions can be tied to fossil fuels. In contrast, biogenic methane emissions are far more prevalent historically in the southern hemisphere.

Methane emissions actually rose significantly in the southern hemisphere – where thermogenic emissions from fossil fuels are far less prevalent.  This would suggest that that a significant amount of the rise in methane emissions is attributable to biogenic sources (but the researchers choose to downplay this). Oddly, the report almost completely discounts agriculture as a potential contributor to the rise in biogenic methane emissions, while the NOAA/NIWAR study found that agriculture was likely a significant driver in increasing methane emissions.

The report acknowledges other major ethane sources include biomass burning and emissions from the production and transport of coal (coal-bed gas). But they dismiss the significant contribution of coal and biomass to their thermogenic methane emission estimate based on the following reasoning.

Regarding biomass burning:

“Considering only oil and natural gas ethane emissions in the emission optimization implies attributing all additional ethane emissions compared to prior emissions to increasing oil and natural gas sources. This approximation can be justified, as the long-term variability of ethane is dominated by changes in its fossil fuel sources (Aydin et al., 2011). Furthermore, no evidence points to a long-term increase in biomass burning or biofuel use emissions sufficiently strong to explain the observed ethane trend (see discussion in Sect. 4.1 and Appendix A).

Regarding coal mining:

“Coal mining emissions may have significantly contributed to the methane increase since 2007(Bergamaschi et al., 2013) but play a minor role in the ethane emission increase which cannot be fully explained by coal-related emissions. Our approach using ethane as a constraint is not fully suitable to quantify the methane emission increase related to coal mining, as coal emissions are characterized by small EMR values of 0.01–1.07% (MERD50–5000)

It’s pretty fair to assume that at least some of the 39 percent of methane emissions the researchers pinned entirely on oil and gas production could be attributable to coal or biomass burning, yet the researchers dismiss or downplay these sources.


This report is just the latest example of the seemingly never-ending campaign to overstate (and subsequently overregulate) methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. Oddly, the report’s data don’t even support its hyperbolic narrative.

As the date from this report, and a recent NOAA/NIWAR study show, biogenic sources of methane, such as livestock and wetlands – not oil and gas production – are responsible for a vast majority of the recent rise in global methane emissions. Furthermore, methane emissions from oil and natural gas systems (232.4 MMT in the U.S., according to the latest EPA estimate) represent only about 3.4 percent of all the greenhouse gases emitted in the United States and just 0.005 percent of GHG emissions worldwide. EID research has also found that a 45 percent reduction in EPA’s revised 2013 U.S. methane emissions totals would equate to 92.96 MMT CO2 Eq. by 2025. For perspective, those proposed reductions would reduce global temperatures just four one thousandths of one degree (.0004 celsius) by 2100.

Not only does the report’s data contradict the researchers’ conclusions, but the regulatory measures that it is undeniably advocating for would have virtually no impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

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