Ideas and perspectives: is shale gas a major driver of recent increase in global atmospheric methane?
Methane has been rising rapidly in the atmosphere over the past decade, contributing to global climate change. Unlike the late 20th century when the rise in atmospheric methane was accompanied by an enrichment in the heavier carbon stable isotope (13C) of methane, methane in recent years has become more depleted in 13C. This depletion has been widely interpreted as indicating a primarily biogenic source for the increased methane. Here we show that part of the change may instead be associated with emissions from shale-gas and shale-oil development. Previous studies have not explicitly considered shale gas, even though most of the increase in natural gas production globally over the past decade is from shale gas. The methane in shale gas is somewhat depleted in 13C relative to conventional natural gas. Correcting earlier analyses for this difference, we conclude that shale-gas production in North America over the past decade may have contributed more than half of all of the increased emissions from fossil fuels globally and approximately one-third of the total increased emissions from all sources globally over the past decade.