Ethane is an air pollutant and greenhouse gas, which tends to break down low in the atmosphere and can lead to an increase in ground-based pollution, posing both health and environmental risks. Back in the 1970s, a number of systems were put into place, which significantly reduced ethane emissions; but those gains are quickly being reversed. Between 2005 and 2010, about 60% of that reduction was reversed, meaning that in about three years we could see ethane emissions meeting or exceeding the peak emissions reached in 1970.
While ethane is produced naturally during wildfires, volcanic activity, or from fossil carbon seepage, researchers have found that probably about three quarters of the current emissions come from human activity, especially related to the oil and gas industries. Burning biomass also results in ethane emissions. The highest increase in methane and associated propane emissions has been in the central and eastern United States, and is directly linked to oil and gas drilling.
The kind of surface pollution created by ethane emissions will likely be worse in the summer, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise. In addition, the above average temperatures and below average rainfall in the western United States in recent years has led to more and larger wildfires which, among other problems, introduce additional ethane into the atmosphere.
The Northern Hemisphere has seen a greater increase, but ethane levels are up around the world. Since we have dealt with ethane emissions in the past and were pretty successful at reducing those emissions over time, it stands to reason that taking similar steps can help this time as well. Unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do with cars or trucks any more, so emission reductions will have to come from the gas and oil industries, which are notoriously difficult to get on board with environmental action.