Methane leaks are mostly insignificant, but while striving to do even better, the oil and gas industry is taking action to further reduce them.
Natural gas advocates spend a good deal of their time answering or rebutting myths. These myths, perpetuated by special interest groups and pseudo-environmentalist groups, are regurgitated repeatedly. Among them is the idea methane emissions are a growing problem.
A natural gas advocate is a myth buster armed with facts, statistics, and often with intestinal fortitude to speak up when having the unpopular opinion. John Adams once said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence…” Many times, opponents of natural gas refuse to even admit to the most easily verified fact, that using more natural gas instead of coal, oil and wood is good for reducing CO2 emissions associated with climate change. There are many other benefits, but that one is simply undeniable.
The natural gas industry has come a long way with technological advances since the shale boom. Drilling and fracking operations have become more efficient as have the prospecting modeling tools to maximize labor, investments, and logistics. However, it is not a perfect process and we [advocates] need to understand them. Think of it as a SWOT analysis; to understand how to get better, you should know where you are weakest. One area we still need to improve upon is methane leakage.
Wait, wait, I know what you are thinking; methane? Opponents of natural gas love to flip to Chapter 5 of their Anti-Fracking Handbook for Dummies and recite how any benefit of natural gas is offset by methane. We know this is not true and like other advances in the natural gas industry, methane leaks have been drastically reduced while gas production simultaneously increased. Dr. Katie Brown does a great job summarizing it here; however, it does still happen and there is still room for improvement despite the successes.
The International Energy Agenda, for example, in its World Energy Outlook 2017, found more could be done at various stages of the supply chain:
“Stepping up action to tackle methane leaks along the oil and gas value chain is essential to bolster the environmental case for gas: these emissions are not the only anthropogenic emissions of methane, but they are likely to be among the cheapest to abate. We present the first global analysis of the costs of abating the estimated 76 million tonnes of methane emitted worldwide each year in oil and gas operations, which suggest that 40-50% of these emissions can be mitigated at no net cost, because the value of the captured methane could cover the abatement measures.”
Hinrich Schaefer, an atmospheric scientist at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research also said:
“Greenhouse gas inventories from U.S. EPA show that emissions from fossil fuel extraction have increased in recent years. But this has apparently not registered on the global scale. This is possibly because the U.S. energy industry contributes little to the overall burden of global fossil fuel emissions”
The important point, of course, is that we contribute little to the problem on the global scale. Nonetheless, striving to be better is good practice for two reasons: capturing the methane can return it back into useful production and a little goodwill gesture goes a long way in winning hearts and minds. I am not the only one who thinks so either.
The American Petroleum Institute (APT) announced last December that they would be voluntarily putting in a measure, known as The Environmental Partnership, to further reduce methane emissions. This partnership includes 26 oil and gas companies such as Cabot, Shell, and Pioneer. These companies are committing to implementing leak monitoring, replacing or retrofitting high emitting pneumatic controllers, and minimizing emissions from manual liquids. Erik Milito, Director of Upstream and Industry Operations for API, said:
“We’ve done it in a very surgical way so that we’ve picked programs that are actually going to help us see tangible improvements and really provide us a platform to really show continued emissions reductions,”
This is exactly what the industry needed to do, not to prove themselves to skeptics who won’t accept anything, but rather to continue the ongoing strive to be better and do better. Natural gas is an amazing resource, particularly because of its abundance, but it is finite and we do not want to waste any of it. As long as there is gas, there will be demand and that is a fact.