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Methane (CH4) i s a colorless and odorless gas that is produced naturally and as a result of industrial processes. It is present in natural gas and in firedamp, which is associated with coal mining, as well as in marsh gas, which is a product of the anaerobic decomposition of animal or plant matter. Decomposition under water is the most common form of anaerobic decomposition. Methane is produced when bituminous coal is burnt in the production of other substances.
Its main use is as a fuel. Its burning with oxygen produces carbon dioxide and water in a highly exothermic process. Methane may be harnessed as an alternative source of power to oil. Animal guts, such as from cows, also produce methane. Commercial methane gas does have a strong odor as a result of sulfur additives introduced to allow detection of potentially dangerous gas leaks. The total amount of methane in the atmosphere is increasing because of intensive agricultural processes and this is contributing to global warming.
The digestive processes of animals, notably farm animals, contribute up to 14 percent of the global total of methane. Several state governments for which agricultural production is a significant industry have attempted to tax such emissions. However, powerful farming interests have managed to thwart these efforts.
Agricultural scientists have achieved more success with chemical solutions to the problem, achieving reductions in emissions of up to 70 percent, although these results have not yet been tested on a large scale. For countries such as Australia and Canada, such a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would make a significant contribution to the Kyoto Treaty or other international commitments to total emissions reductions.
Methane is considered a greenhouse gas because its absorbs terrestrial infrared energy that would otherwise escape into space. The current level of methane in the atmosphere is at its highest recorded modern level. Ice core analysis indicates not only a rapid increase in the amount of methane since 1750, but also acceleration in its increase since the 1980s. Methane has now reached an average of 1,745 parts per billion of the earth’s atmosphere. Earth’s early atmosphere had a much higher amount of methane, resulting from volcanic activity; however, such conditions are not conducive to human life.
In addition to animal digestion, landfill sites represent another major contributor to methane emissions. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has organized a number of projects aimed at harnessing the value of methane from landfills and sites of natural production and converting it into an economically viable resource. Many hundreds of such sites have been identified as suitable for this kind of development. Production of energy from this methane has significant social and economic benefits.
The most common source of methane, nevertheless, remains the presence of natural gas in deposits associated with oil and hydrocarbons in the ground. The presence of such gas remains of considerable geopolitical importance owing to its role as a stable source of energy production.
The gas fields available to Russia, for example, have enabled it to further several international political goals. The withholding of gas at low cost to Georgia precipitated political change in that country, while negotiations with European Union leaders for continued supplies of the gas enabled the Russian leadership to achieve a higher profile and more respected position. The world’s largest known gas field is located between Iran and Qatar at the South Pars field.
- Paulina Jaramillo and Scott Matthews, “Landfill-Gas-to-Energy Projects: Analysis of New Private and Social Benefits,” Environmental Science and Technology (v.39/19, 2005);
- Mastalerz, M.V. Glikson, and Suzanne D. Golding, eds., Coalbed Methane: Scientific, Environmental and Economic Evaluation (Springer, 1999);
- National Academy of Sciences, Methane Generation from Human, Animal, and Agricultural Wastes (Books for Business, 2001).