Methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, so when it’s leaking by the ton, it’s a $50 billion problem. The New York Times described the phenomenon of methane leakage in a recent article which raised questions about the true costs of this waste. 

The EPA estimates that 3 trillion cubic feet of the invisible gas unintentionally escape into the atmosphere each year from patchy gas and oil wells, pipelines, and tanks. This accidental loss alone is equivalent to about half of the global warming power of all U.S. coal power plants emissions.  That is the same climate impact of a quarter billion cars.

Roger Peilke Jr., professor of environmental studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, does an admirable job of estimating the commercial value cost of leaking methane at $24 billion. But there is more to the story — the cost to society of this methane leakage adds up to a much higher number.

Methane, like CO2, carries a social cost which must be accounted for — each ton emitted into the atmosphere exacts a toll.  Weather variability will threaten crops; rising sea levels will submerge coastal lands; insurance premiums will rise as more homes are at risk of flooding and fires.  As global warming worsens, these costs will become sharper, causing economic pain across the globe. Though no one benefits from leaking methane, we all pay for its effect on our climate. 

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Recently, the Department of Energy used a conservative estimate, $19, to price out the cost to society of a ton of CO2 emissions.  Knowing that, and the fact that methane is 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide, we can do some simple multiplication and determine that the social cost of leaky methane hovers around $29 billion annually.  This is in addition to Professor Peilke’s commercial value lost, bringing the grand total to over $50 billion. 

The irony here is — no one benefits from these leaks. Companies certainly don’t profit from the lost revenue.  So if no one benefits, and we will be charged $50 billion for the privilege, why not enforce monitoring and sealing of these leaks? 

As the Times noted, next year Japan will release data from the Gosat satellite which will most likely show hot spots of methane gas pouring into the skies from the worst offenders: Russia, the United States, Ukraine, and Mexico.  We’ll be confronted with the images of our total emissions of this global warming gas, and it’s probably not a pretty picture.  Leaky methane is only part of the overall problem, but the cost-benefit analysis on fixing it is a no-brainer. 

There is also a larger lesson to be learned here: our actions have consequences, and some cost more money than others.  If we really want to spew methane into the atmosphere in a wasteful and unnecessary way, we must be prepared to pay the price — in this case, over $50 billion.  And if we want to continue to rely on dirty coal power plants to generate our electricity, we must be prepared to pay that bill as well — one that is at least $120 billion per year (not even including climate change costs). And if we refuse to invest in controls on our heat-trapping emissions, then we should realize we are likely making a bad bet, one that could wreak havoc on American and global economies. 

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