Methane: An Invisible, Odorless, and Crucial Concern

May 16, 2016

Humans are visual creatures. But there are some things we cannot see.


The Aliso Canyon storage facility is the second largest natural gas storage facility on the west coast and about 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles.
© Roy Randall

Humans are visual creatures. If we see plastics clogging a stream, animals engulfed in oil, or millions of sharks slaughtered for their fins, we know there is a problem because we can visualize it. But there are some things we cannot see. We cannot see climate change directly – our eyes cannot see carbon dioxide levels rising or heat being trapped in our atmosphere. We also cannot see methane, the main component of natural gas, which also happens to be a critical component driving global climate change. Odorless, invisible, and a growing global concern, it’s time we start talking about methane.

Methane gas is released into the atmosphere from living organisms and human-related sources. In nature, certain bacteria release methane when they break down food in non-oxygen environments. This happens often in places such as wetlands and deep in the oceans, where oxygen in limited. Cows and termites are well known for releasing gas, and we too, release methane from our bodies from gut bacteria breaking down our food. While methane is part of Earth’s nature cycle, today, more than half of all methane in the atmosphere, around 64%, is released by human-related sources.

The significance of methane in the atmosphere is that it is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over the short term, meaning it contributes more strongly to human-accelerated climate change. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that methane, while less abundant than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is responsible for at least 25 percent of the warming on Earth. Although methane is unseen, the consequences – an increasing unstable climate– are becoming clearer. Already, we are seeing glaciers rapidly melting, oceans rising, and more intense, unpredictable weather around the world. But as humans, we don’t see methane itself.

For those living near the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility in Los Angeles, California, including residents of Porter Ranch and surrounding neighborhoods, invisible methane suddenly became a critical concern. In October 2015, Southern California Gas Company discovered a leak in one of their pipes at the storage facility. Nearby residents soon began reporting headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, and illnesses in their pets. Residents were inhaling not only methane gushing from the leak, but also chemical additives including carcinogenic benzene. After numerous attempts to fix the leak, thousands of tons of methane poured into the atmosphere for four months before it could be stopped. The leak has since become California’s single largest contributor to climate change.

Nearly 5,000 people have been relocated from their homes, thousands of children moved to neighboring schools, and people’s daily lives disrupted on a massive scale. The lack of Southern California Gas Company to protect the public from the gas leak, or even inform them about the problem in a timely manner, is a violation of our basic rights. The well’s safety valve, meant to stop such a leak, was removed in 1979 and never replaced. No automatic shutoff systems. No emergency response plan in place to deal with a leak of this magnitude. This is a major problem. It is not healthy to people or our planet, it is not economical, and it is totally unacceptable. Unfortunately, it is the tip of iceberg.

In recent years, the natural gas industry has become a major source of energy in the United States. President Obama even called it a “bridge fuel” able to power our economy with less of the carbon pollution associated with other energy sources such as coal. But an extensive study conducted by researchers at the Environmental Defense Fund found that methane is leaking at every stage of the gas and oil supply chain. This means across neighborhood pipelines and within drilling, production, processing, and storage facilities. Even more shocking, the U.S. Department of Transportation reports that of the nearly 1.6 million miles of natural gas pipelines connected to homes, over a third were built before 1970. Of the pipelines that cross state lines, nearly half were built in the 1950s and 60s. Our infrastructure is aging. We must do more to control these methane leaks, or else we will continue to put people and our planet at risk.


After four months of leaking an estimated 90,000 metric tons of methane have been released into the atmosphere, equivalent to two coal-fired power plants operating for a year. © Environmental Defense Fund

While the Aliso Canyon methane leak is a disastrous event, many places around the world purposely burn methane and other gases off as waste, called gas flaring. When drilling for oil, natural gas is also released. Instead of investing in equipment to properly store and sell this natural gas, many places burn off the excess. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, at the end of 2011, the gas burned as waste was equal to 25 percent of the United States annual consumption. We are wasting a quarter of the energy produced? In 2014, a company in South Texas burned $100 million worth of gas from flaring. Economically, we are wasting a valuable resource. Environmentally, we are changing our planet’s atmosphere and risking the future of generations to come.

Oil and gas industries may be the largest source of methane released by humans, but livestock farming is a close second. With the growing demand for meat and dairy, there are now over one billion cows worldwide. As cows eat and digest grasses, bacteria in their guts work to break down food, releasing methane in the process. The methane released from the livestock industry rivals that of global transportation. In many places of the world, forests are cleared for grazing pastures, and livestock waste spills millions of gallons of manure into waterways, polluting rivers and oceans. There are many ways we can all be kinder to our environment. Opting for more vegan options, for example, can expand our palates while reducing our global carbon footprint.

Our planet works on a delicate balancing act. But human activity has been affecting this refined system. As we pump fossil fuels into the atmosphere, we have no way to bring them back to the Earth, and we alter nature’s balance. One of the greatest concerns regarding methane is its potential to cause a “runaway” effect. As more methane is released, the planet warms from the greenhouse gas effect. As our planet warms, major methane deposits such as those in the Arctic’s frozen permafrost are released, leading to more methane, and therefore more warming. Some experts call this a positive feedback loop – where the release of methane drives the release of even more methane. The same is true for methane deposits in the oceans, called methane hydrates, which resemble chunks of ice. As the oceans absorb excess heat from the atmosphere, scientists are concerned these methane deposits may change from a solid to gas and contribute to an even greater level of global warming.

As is the case with methane, it is difficult to understand a problem you cannot see. We can only learn from scientists and trust the peer-reviewed process of the experts. What we do know, as a global population, is that human-induced climate change is real. We can see the consequences of our changing climate. During the December 2015 Paris Climate Conferences, scientists desperately warned about the dangers of methane due to its major influence in driving climate change. It is a fast-acting climate pollutant, and must be one of the first things we address and manage moving forward.

Creative solutions are everywhere. Better policies and regulations for oil and gas industries are absolutely essential, but we must also look at our food industries, landfills and other methane sources. Individually, we can alter our behaviors and collectively we can drive entire industries. First, we must know, then, we can act. When we change our behavior, we have the power to change the world.

Warm regards,


Jean-Michel Cousteau
President, Ocean Futures Society
with Jaclyn Mandoske