Climate Science is evolving at a furious pace. Science doesn’t care about human politics either way…but if humans are going to sustain on this tiny planet, we need objective, data based facts to base environmental policy on. And we need specific, leveraged climate action to stay within any kind of realistic and achievable goal. Consider that the gap between the science around biogenic methane and mainstream awareness, in the case of biogenic methane, has been approximately fifteen years. Even now, 95% of environmental journalists cannot talk intelligently about biogenic methane, so the reality is likely closer to twenty years, two decades. Then “industry” has to gear up. Allow another five years for this. So two and a half decades, roughly, for humans to begin to address what may be the most “effective” form of climate action available and vulnerable to human initiative.
In April of 2021 a key study emerged out of Yale, titled Half of Global Methane Emissions Come from Highly Variable Aquatic Ecosystem Sources. Note that this is a “compendium” study, that pulls lots of previous science together. One of the authors, Dr. Judith Rosentreter, expanded on this with an easy to read article titled Half of Global Methane Emissions Come from Aquatic Ecosystems – Much of This Is Human-Made. Both publications package up the latest information on biogenic methane, the single largest source of methane on this planet. Do you recall Biden’s comment in advance of the COP 26 gathering in Scotland last fall? He said something like “methane is the low hanging greenhouse gas. We need to focus on it if we are in fact going to succeed in our efforts to mitigate climate change.”
Methane is the leading edge of climate action. And it does not hinge on oil and gas. Instead, we are in a “fix or fail” mode based on agriculture and fresh water stewardship. Agriculture is the key. Let me say this differently: methane has a minimum of twenty-five times more impact per unit than carbon dioxide, and the largest single emitter of methane in North America is the U.S. government as it manages agricultural nutrient loading, think “fertilizer”, which accumulates in government controlled freshwater reservoirs. Ironically, this positions the Biden administration to actually succeed with highly effective climate action. Just the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) alone controls 338 reservoirs here in the western U.S., most of which are nutrient impaired and currently generating massive volumes of biogenic methane. The U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers controls 40% of reservoir water here in the west…even more than the BOR. Between the two, and their already written in stone, bipartisan mission statements, one controlled by the U.S. Army, the other by the Dept. of the Interior, the U.S. is able to act immediately. The U.S. government doesn’t have to wait for the mid terms. It doesn’t have to wait for the legislative arm of government, because the rules of engagement are already in place. The “mission statements", and corresponding budgets for these government agencies are already in place, and funded. Just what is holding U.S. climate action back?
The following is a brief outline that answers this question.
Here’s the bare bones science behind biogenic methane:
1. Ever since the Haber/Bosch process was developed to generate commercial volume of nitrogen fertilizer in the early 20th century, (pre world war two) which then led to phosphorus exploitation as the new world of synthetic fertilizer drove agricultural hyper production, resulting nutrient concentrations have built up in watersheds, especially across the developed world. The fertilizer is grossly over employed by soil scientists who are not conversant with nature’s methods, as defined by the Redfield ratio. Instead of the ratio’s 16 to 1 rule, soil scientists combined with commercial motivation “recommend” ratios that are bizarre…like what you see in your farm supply store on a bag of fertilizer. The 30-20 or even 30-30 ratios between nitrogen and phosphorus, are dramatically outside of nature’s model. The excess nutrients, especially phosphorus, are now concentrated at the bottom of our watersheds. Think reservoirs and other large bodies of water, like lake Erie or the Chesapeake or the Gulf of Mexico. This results in what water managers see today…harmful algae blooms, massive monocultures of explosive volume of aquatic vegetation, fish kills and sick water, and biogenic methane. We can’t see methane because its a gas. But we can measure it.
2. This methane breaks down into Carbon 12. Oil and gas based methane breaks down into Carbon 13. The rate of increase of C12 has expanded and now dominates over C13 per the last fifteen years. In short, agriculture is the leading generator of methane and the ratio between it’s methane generation and that of oil and gas is changing, expanding. (Further reading: Colorado NOAA paper).
Be forewarned, the current scientific literature blends methane from nutrient impaired water into a single category…wetland based methane. In fact, at least in North America, wetlands are almost a non-factor. Here it’s fully about large water…reservoirs, large lakes and bays. This is where the nutrients accumulate and biogenic methane ebbulates from the ubiquitous benthic sludge. The methane is concentrated into “hotspots” in deep water settings. When the water turns over, at least twice a year, huge surges of methane communicate into our atmosphere.
Floating Island International (FII) is advancing off-grid ability to target methane “hotspots”. It’s exciting work. Treatment is made achievable with the latest forms of oxygenation. Biogenic methane can be treated off-grid with a blend of oxygenation and biological stewardship. This massive source of methane is preventable, right now.
Think about it this way…a single, mid-size reservoir in Montana, a headwater reservoir near the very beginning of the concentrated nutrient surges associated with prime agricultural land in the U.S., generates more methane than entire natural gas fields, with associated “flare-offs”. And the U.S. government is responsible for these reservoirs. They control the reservoirs, and accordingly, they control the methane these reservoirs emit. However, today, they are sitting on their hands.
It’s ironic that the current democratic administration is responsible for the greatest emissions of methane. One would think it will be hard to wave a stick at Oil and Gas, while being responsible for the bulk of the problem, and maintain a straight face?
Because most biogenic methane is concentrated into “hotspots” in large, deep reservoirs and lakes, we have a focussed window of opportunity. The carbon credit market, guided by the carbon registry, is in place. I suspect that this combination of factors will result in incredible wealth for those with financial initiative. This climate action play doesn’t require off-shore, emerging nation collaboration either. The greatest volumes of methane occurs right here, because of those concentrated nutrients associated with conventional agriculture. Developed nations, and their large water managers, are the tip of the spear. They will set the pace around effective climate action. I will say this again…developed nations are where effective and highly leveraged climate action will happen, or not.
Think Sole Source provider contracts…think independent third party efficacy verification, think all of this happening within existing budgets. It really is this simple. The largest single source of methane, biogenic or otherwise, is treatable today. The carbon credit value of this treatment will pay for the treatment. Yes, governments can earn carbon credits too. So the fix will not mess with USACE or BOR’s budget. In fact, fixing/preventing biogenic methane will be a revenue generator for both, at least if they are smart about their Sole Source provider contracts.
With today’s state of the art neutral buoyant oxygenation systems bottom zones (benthic) in deep water settings can be made aerobic…with breathable oxygen. While this supports the microbes that eat methane, preventing it, it also means that the dead, unbreathable water is resurrected, restored, into oxygenated and productive food webs. The volume of air breathing biota, think fish and everything else associated with healthy water, can happen.
Here is an example to consider: a reservoir on the border between Wyoming and Montana is deep, some 430 feet deep just in front of the dam. Most of that depth is currently unlivable for fish. Instead, today, it ebulates methane. Tomorrow that same water could sustain trout, walleye, and the full range of both, cold and warm water fish. Move over to Chesapeake Bay, and consider that the oyster beds that used to be there in huge profusion are today prevented by lack of oxygen. The oysters have to breathe in order to carry out their life model, and in the process filter pollution out of the bay.
Now, with biogenic methane mitigation, they can. The air breathing oysters can be sustained. Even in the face of nutrient pollution. This means clearer water, more air breathing biota, as in more fish, and a resurrected food web once again.
We could be talking about the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, or tens of thousands of reservoirs and lakes up watershed.
I doubt the U.S. is prepared to fix the dysfunctional fertilizer issue by getting the nitrogen to phosphorus ratio back into nature’s model. But with the economic driver that carbon credits represent, and just a bit of political leadership, we can fix/prevent biogenic methane. This is not a complex dot connection exercise either. A remarkable form of highly leveraged climate action is right here, right now.
WHO ARE THE LEADERS TO WATCH?
The viewscape is hazy, but my sense is that top tier bureaucrats, mid level or higher, in the federal government will be serious players is this development. Admittedly, they are not renowned for “action.” Therein lies the conundrum. There will have to be a top down directive to motivate these leaders? Could a Deb Holland make this happen? I’m watching with great interest as this vital form of climate action occurs.
We will know that this form of climate action has gained serious “legs” when some of the big, international engineering firms associated with large infrastructure projects become involved. In the meantime, smaller innovators are at work on the industry side. This category includes Floating Island International. Wish us luck!
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