New Study Expands Efforts to Understand Climate Implications of Methane Emissions

New supplies of natural gas are no doubt changing our energy landscape and, of all fossil fuels, natural gas appears to be a smarter choice because its carbon footprint is smaller when combusted than coal or oil. When talking about natural gas as part of a potential climate solution, though, it is important to recognize its unique position as either being a good or bad thing for global warming – depending upon the amount of uncombusted methane emissions that are released into the atmosphere.

No matter what market forces dictate for the future of gas, it’s EDF’s job to ensure that natural gas doesn’t become a detriment to public health or the environment. And, with respect to air quality and climate, getting better data on methane emissions is essential.

Methane can be emitted at various points across the natural gas system. Comprised mostly of methane, natural gas is a potent greenhouse gas. When it enters the atmosphere unburned, it has a higher warming potential than carbon dioxide, the principal contributor of man-made climate change. The more gas released, the more it undermines the climate benefits of using natural gas as compared to other fossil fuels. Yet there is no clear sense of how much and from where methane is leaking out from the system, as my colleague and Chief Scientist Steven Hamburg has explained here.

Over the last year EDF has been orchestrating a large-scale study of methane emissions with leading researchers in the field and industry to better understand the amount of methane emissions across the natural gas supply chain. To date the 30-month collaborative effort, with a $10 million overall budget, is bringing together almost 20 universities and research facilities and about 40 industry partners, collectively, in order to measure methane directly at potentially large emissions sources as gas moves from the formation underground to the wellhead and then on to the consumer.

Yesterday, the third part of EDF’s methane research study was announced, which focuses on the local distribution of natural gas (from city gate to customer meter) and is led by a research team out of Washington State University. The study should be of particular interest to customers because in many cases, reducing emissions could also reduce natural gas utility bills. By helping to determine the amount of methane emissions and where it is coming from, EDF’s hope is that this study will be an important step in helping to reduce the methane emissions– thereby lowering the climate impact of natural gas and, potentially, energy costs for consumers.

The American Gas Association (AGA), National Grid, Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) and Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) are co-sponsors of the local distribution study. Several other companies are also participating in the study through AGA, including CenterPoint Energy, Citizens Energy Group, NW Natural, Piedmont Natural Gas, Questar Gas and Xcel Energy.

As the study enables the research team to sample numerous sites around the country, the direct access given to equipment and facilities by the utilities is critical to ensuring that the final dataset will be as comprehensive and representative of regional differences as possible for national scaling. It comes at an opportune time, as an increased supply of domestic natural gas continues to promise energy security and environmental performance benefits. In order to reap these benefits, though, we must reduce methane emissions and other environmental risks along the natural gas supply chain.

Participating natural gas utilities understand the importance of accurately quantifying methane emissions from local distribution systems. Yet, moving from quantifying emissions to reducing them is not always easy. Large capital expenditures to reduce emissions often require approval from the Public Utility Commissions (PUCs). Many state PUCs are promoting ways to enable utilities to accelerate actions to reduce emissions.

The data from this study will be hugely beneficial in informing where these discussions go from here. But enough is known about the potency of methane today that proactive measures should not be delayed. In our view, this includes steps in the local distribution sector such as the rapid deployment of methane monitoring technologies, improved requirements for frequent leak detection and a rate structure that incentivizes the repair of leaks.

Reducing methane emissions is possible, and why not?  There are not only significant benefits at stake for the country, but also large environmental and economic costs. After all, gas is a valuable product that when lost to the atmosphere translates into a loss of sales. It’s time to get a better handle on fugitive methane emissions and we’re delighted to see so many companies come together in this study to do just that.

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