Anyone younger than 30 may not understand what a skipping record sounds like; in their lives, listening to tunes has more often meant hitting a playlist on iTunes or streaming Pandora, than it has meant dusting off an old record. To us “old” folks who remember when clunky 8-track tapes were the height of portable music cool, today’s options are nothing less than astounding.
Believe it or not, I was thinking about this as I participated yesterday in a panel at the World Resource Institute in Washington, D.C. to discuss their new paper titled, “Cleaning the Air: Reducing Upstream Greenhouse Gas Emissions From U.S. Natural Gas Systems.” Reviewing the report, and reflecting on EDF’s own work to understand and reduce methane and other air pollution, it’s clear a huge opportunity exists for technology to revolutionize air quality practices in the gas industry, just as it reengineered production and delivery of audio in the music industry. And the prospects are very bright that it will.
Champions of natural gas like to say that natural gas is a preferred fossil fuel alternative to coal and oil because it has less carbon content than either, and therefore, when burned, produces less carbon dioxide, which is the a primary cause of global warming. This is true.
But what is often not said is that natural gas is primarily made up of methane, which itself is a powerful greenhouse gas pollutant, many times more powerful than carbon dioxide, particularly when methane is first released into the atmosphere. Even small leaks at the wellhead or along the infrastructure used to process and transport the gas to our power plants, homes and businesses can undo much of the greenhouse gas benefits we think we are getting when we substitute natural gas for coal or petroleum sources.
A paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by EDF scientists and others last April concluded that for natural gas to have a net climate benefit for the climate leakage needs to be reduced to one percent or less. This finding was based on best available science that indicated natural gas offered a climate advantage, when fuel-switching natural gas for other fuels used in electric generation or transportation at all points in time.
Unfortunately, we don’t know as much as a we like about the magnitude of these emissions, which is why EDF has been working with industry and some of our nation’s leading research universities to go out into the field and do direct measurements of methane emissions across the natural gas supply chain. We expect that the data we collect will improve our understanding of the degree of emissions at each point in the natural gas system, and where the best opportunities are for minimizing them.
The good news is that many of the best practices for reducing or eliminating methane emissions are already known and are gaining ground with some industry leaders. For example, reduced emissions completion technology, sometimes referred to as “green completions” is a proven way to save product and avert emissions, and companies like Southwestern Energy have shown that it can be implemented cost effectively. Other technologies, like switching from high to low bleed pneumatic controllers, are also known to gas producers, but appear to be less widely embraced. The WRI report talks about some of the options available to industry and their effectiveness. Our colleagues at NRDC have written on this as well.
So, at this point, you’re probably thinking “great, technologies exist, but unlike music replay technology, I am not free to choose the cool new stuff for natural gas production. Only the natural gas industry can do that.” True.
That is why proper regulation is critically important. The fact of that matter is that the only assurance we have that the natural gas industry will fully monitor and fix leaks when and where they occur is if they are required to do so. The Environmental Protection Agency took an important step in that direction last year when they finalized a “new source performance standard” rule for oil and gas producers targeted at reducing harmful volatile organic compound pollution, but with important side benefits for reducing methane pollution as well. But more can and should be done, and we are working on this front.
But I’d also suggest that part of the point of our recently announced Center for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD) is to provide natural gas producers to step out from the pack and embrace leading practices that, among other things, help reduce methane pollution. Although a work in progress, it is our hope that companies who certify to these higher standards – and consistently meet them – will be seen as preferred producers in the eyes of public officials, landowners, and ultimately natural gas consumers. If you live in the Appalachian region, soon, you will be able to ask a producer “are you CSSD certified?” And if not, why not?
Finally, let’s remember that methane leakage is a problem not limited to natural gas producers, although they tend to get most of the public attention. The infrastructure used to gather, process, and deliver the natural gas to your home or business, has challenges of its own. And, frankly, whether you know it or not, you are paying for whatever natural gas is lost along the way. Buried in your monthly natural gas bill is a line item for “lost and unaccounted for” natural gas, which is the utility company’s estimate of how much natural gas goes ‘missing’ on their system. You pay for it, and so you have a right to ask for more accurate measurement of what is actually lost, and a right to ask both your local gas utility and the government officials who regulate them to speed up efforts to find and fix these leaks.
Just as we no longer have to put up with scratches and pops when we listen to music, or awkward “cerchunks” of the 8 track switching sides in the middle of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (Google it, kids) we don’t have to accept that methane leaks at any point in the production or delivery of natural gas are something we just have to live with. We can do better. And we should.