The Future of Methane
The words "Global Warming" continue to come up more and more in conversations regarding today's greatest environmental threats so Methane, arguably Global Warming's biggest contributor, is typically not far behind. Most often it is in the context of what should be done about it?
Even though methane doesn't make up nearly as much of our atmosphere as Carbon Dioxide, 1.9 parts per million(ppm) compared to 417.19 ppm, or stick around in the atmosphere for nearly as long, 8 years compared to at least 300 years, its incredible potency has long made it a target for plans looking to reduce the Earth's greenhouse effect.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory(JPL) in conjunction with the University of Arizona and Arizona State University recently posted their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of over 3000 sites they have pinpointed in the United States alone which they are classifying as methane super emitters. Being a super emitter means the site releases more than 22 lbs. of methane per hour. These emission sites include oil and gas production facilities, landfills, coal mines, and wet manure sites in animal feedlots.
Manure isn't even the only source of methane present at animal feedlots. Enteric methane, which comes directly from the feed animals' mouths is also a much more significant source than most people realize. Of course the people who run the feedlots have long been acutely aware of how much methane their sites produce as well as fact many are eyeing them to make the biggest changes.
The world loosening it's grip on fossil fuels means coal mines, oil and gas production facilities and other business that facilitate fossil fuels will almost certainly ramp down production over the next couple decades. On the flip side, as the global population continues to rise, the necessity of feedlots will continue to rise with it.
For a very long time, the popular method of dealing with methane emissions across many industries was to simply flare it off, meaning the methane would get funneled through a large flame and get burned off as it was released. However, as advancements in Renewable Natural Gas(RNG) show more and more promise, many farm and feedlots are looking to anaerobic digestion as their new solution.
Specifically California's Dairy farms currently make up about half of all methane digesters in the U.S. with 206 projects planned to service 217 farms. If the numbers there caused you momentary pause, yes, individual projects will be servicing multiple farms. These "clusters" of farms, of which there are currently 16, all send their gas to a centralized processing facility which turns it into fully usable transportation fuel both making the farms money and saving it at the same time.
These digesters, in turn, are adding further value to farms in some states like Vermont, which passed a law in 2020 banning various organic items and greenhouse gas offenders like peels, seeds, eggshells, and many others from being put in the trash. Now many people are gathering these items and supplying them to farms with anaerobic digesters which allows them to produce even more methane for companies who want to buy it from them.
Farms and feedlots started looking to RNG as a way to more safely and productively handle their methane emission and many are finding unexpected secondary incomes from doing so. Rather than simply releasing or flaring methane many have found the best way to protect the environment from it. Sell it. As more farms and indeed, more industries catch on, the question of what to do with methane shouldn't be a hard one to answer but only time will tell.