Finding a United Front as Methane Becomes Key Climate Battle

By Mark Brownstein and Steven Hamburg

Washington Post science writer Chris Mooney weighs in today with a deep-dive on rising methane emissions from America’s surging natural gas production, calling it “most important mystery about U.S. climate change policy.” This story is just the latest to highlight the need to address this urgent climate threat. It follows Bill McKibben’s compelling piece in the Nation exploring the same question and suggesting methane has overwhelmed the benefits of carbon dioxide reductions.

McKibben raises a crucial question, one we’ve spent a lot of time looking at ourselves. He’s right that methane is one of the most pressing fronts in the fight against disastrous warming, and one of the many reasons we need to speed the transition to clean energy. But we are more hopeful than Bill is about prospects for effectively addressing the methane problem in the meantime.

Big Problem, Critical Opportunity

Oil and gas methane emissions are a huge threat. But the very same properties that make methane such a danger to the climate also mean it’s an opportunity — a chance to reduce the rate of temperature increase in the next two decades while we simultaneously do the hard work of reducing CO2 emissions. Tackling methane is the single most impactful move we can make to alter the trajectory of climate change we experience now, even as we continue to accelerate the shift to low- and zero-carbon energy.

Manmade methane emissions cause one quarter of the increased warming we are currently experiencing globally. In the U.S. alone, oil and gas companies dump at least 9 million metric tons of unburned methane into the atmosphere each year, according to the latest EPA draft figures, over twenty years equal to the global warming pollution of 200 coal fired power plants.

Right now, the Obama administration is developing rules aimed at cutting oil and gas methane emissions 40-45% by 2025. Canada signed on to a similar goal during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent visit to Washington, and Mexico has explicitly identified oil and gas methane reductions as one of their Paris commitments, potentially bringing three of the top five global methane emitters into alignment on a common target.

Industry is working hard to stop methane regulations here at home, and to downplay the issue globally at precisely the moment other countries are starting to recognize the challenge. But as nations work toward the ambitious climate commitments they signed last year in Paris (and as they recognize that even those goals aren’t sufficient) curbing methane emissions will become even more important.

With devastating impacts of climate change quickly mounting, now is the moment to fix this readily solvable problem in the U.S. and internationally, by requiring industry to implement basic technologies and find and reduce leaks from all oil and gas facilities — both new and existing, at home as well as abroad.

Methane and Carbon Dioxide Go Hand in Hand

Mckibben makes an important point that increasing methane emissions undercut the near term climate benefits of natural gas over coal. But his critique implies that the diligent efforts by the Obama administration and others to cut carbon dioxide emissions have been for naught, rendered moot by rising methane.

In fact the methane emissions data collected over the past few years do not support such a dire conclusion. Moreover, emissions could be reduced well below anything we’ve seen in recent decades using technology that’s readily available today. What’s needed is public pressure on companies and government regulators to make it happen.

The key thing to remember is that we need to reduce both carbon dioxide and methane emissions. Carbon dioxide, which stays in the atmosphere for a century or more, determines the direction our climate is going over the long term. Methane, which is more potent but much shorter-lived, helps determine how fast the climate changes now.

As the International Energy Agency put it in their annual World Energy Outlook, published ahead of the Paris climate talks last year, “significant reductions in methane emissions would have the tangible and positive effect of slowing the rate of climate change over the near term, while the effects of parallel efforts to reduce CO2 emissions would be realized over the longer term.”

Risk of Missing the point

It’s easy for methane to become subsumed in the debate about fracking. But that would miss the larger point: Long before the shale boom, the U.S. was consuming 22 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year. Today it’s about 27 trillion cubic feet. Either way, it’s a lot of gas. Moreover, leaks occur not just at the well site, but throughout the system, all the way to gas lines under our streets.

McKibben cites a recent paper by a group of Harvard researchers, which used remote sensing tools to identify an increase in methane emissions over North America at roughly the same timeframe as the boom in unconventional oil and (especially) natural gas production technologies. But the researchers did not have the tools to attribute the increase to specific sources.

Meanwhile, industry trumpets a paper published in February attributing increased global methane levels almost exclusively to wetlands and agricultural practices. Another recent paper by a different team using a third method found that roughly 30% of the increased methane was coming from oil and gas sources. For now, the science still remains unresolved as to how much of the emissions increase over the last decade came from oil and gas operations.

But whether or not researchers ultimately find that oil and gas production is responsible for a significant portion of the rise in methane in the atmosphere, we already know that emissions are dangerously high.

Similarly, this should not be a debate just about gas vs. renewables (of which we agree there must and will be much more). That’s because even if the U.S. switched all of our electricity generation to renewable sources, we’d still be using two-thirds of the natural gas produced today 17 trillion cubic feet in the U.S. to heat our homes, cook our food, and support a wide variety of industrial processes.

Better, Deeper Understanding of the Problem

As recently as a few years ago, nobody could say for sure just how much methane was coming from oil and gas production, or where exactly it was coming from. As a result, methane emissions were almost entirely unregulated.

That’s why EDF organized an unprecedented series of comprehensive peer-reviewed studies led by a wide range of scientists on methane emissions from the oil and gas supply chain in the US. We worked with over 100 partners in industry and academia and publishing more than two dozen papers clearly showing that methane leaks happen all across the oil and gas system, from wellheads in the field to the utility lines under our neighborhood streets.

Overall, the research confirms that emissions are much higher than industry or EPA estimates, but not as high as some early estimates by academics suggest. The Uintah basin, cited by McKibben, is one place with incredibly high emissions.

In the aggregate, however, dozens of studies show those rates are not representative of the average. For example, in the Barnett shale in Texas, which produced more gas than the Uintah, the most robust data set ever collected revealed emissions 90% higher than indicated by EPA’s inventory, yet still significantly lower than in the Uintah.

McKibben cites research suggesting an overall leak rate from the U.S. natural gas system of 3.6 to 7.9 percent. EPA estimates put the figure at about 1.5%. Based on extensive and analysis published in peer-reviewed literature over the past three years, we think the actual aggregate number is probably between 2 and 2.5 percent — still too high, but not nearly as bad as some have speculated.

Good Science Points to Good Solutions

McKibben also questions the potential to prevent methane leaks. But knowing how much is leaking and from where makes it much easier to start fixing the problem. In some areas, emissions turn out to be lower than expected, others much higher. Understanding this helps both companies and regulators focus their attention. Solutions include better ways of completing new wells, reconditioning compressors and fittings, and reducing the amount of gas wasted through venting and flaring.

In fact, the field data shows many individual sites are emit little or nothing, which supports the belief that minimizing emissions is indeed possible. The key, in our view, is requiring that the technology and practices used at the best performing sites be the standard at all sites, and that there is regular inspection and maintenance of all sites to keep everything working as it should.

In virtually every sector, researchers have found a disproportionate share of identified emissions were the result of unpredictable, often intermittent, factors like stuck valves and other malfunctions, or things as simple as a hatch cover left open by a worker. One newly released paper looked at 8,000 well pads across the U.S. and found that big leaks occur across the system and it’s nearly impossible to predict in advance where they will happen. This puts a high premium on basic monitoring and repair protocols to catch problems early and often.

Highly Cost Effective Solutions

Neither industry nor outside experts seriously dispute that major methane reductions are feasible. The question is, at what cost. Industry argues that reductions are a costly burden, especially with low oil and gas prices. Even though prices have indeed fallen since we first looked at that question, the evidence continues to show that existing technology can cut methane leaks at least 40% at an average cost of around a penny per thousand cubic feet of gas produced — about one-half of 1% of today’s gas price.

That means fixing methane leaks is one of the biggest bargains in the greenhouse game today — but only if regulators move quickly to establish concrete policies that make best practices the standard sector-wide.

There are examples of individual companies proactively taking steps to reduce emissions, but the good examples are the exception rather than the rule. Few companies even publicly report their methane emissions much less have management goals for reducing them. The voluntary measures industry likes to celebrate simply don’t add up to anywhere near the degree of reductions that are possible, much less the 45% reduction goal that both the United States and Canada have now embraced.

Keeping our Eyes on the Ball

Industry continues to celebrate the climate advantage of natural gas over coal, while discounting the dangerous side effects of leaking methane. They’re slowly losing this argument in the court of public opinion, but the resulting delay is costly and needless. The point is, methane emissions from the global oil and gas industry are a huge contributor to the warming our planet is experiencing right now. It is imperative that we reduce this impact as quickly as possible.

While we agree with McKibben that net zero carbon-emission energy must be the goal, oil and natural gas are an enormous part of the global energy economy today. That isn’t going to change overnight. And it’s not going to change fast enough that we can afford to ignore the opportunity that exists right now to dramatically reduce the enormous amount of methane leaking from the system as it exists today and that is jacking up the rate of climate change now.

The Earth is warming at historically unprecedented rates, and scientists are warning of further acceleration. Based on data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Environmental Protection Agency, and World Energy Outlook, we calculate that reducing natural gas & oil methane emissions by 45% worldwide would have the same climate benefit over 20 years as shutting one-third of the world’s coal-fired power plants.

That means reducing oil and gas methane emissions is the single most immediate, effective step we can take to reduce the rate of warming right now, even as we work to achieve a fundamentally lower carbon future over time.

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  1. CMS
    Posted April 16, 2016 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    I think it is irresponsible to ignore the Agricultural sector. According to the EPA ” the Agriculture sector is the primary source of CH4 emissions.” Agriculture is responsible for 543.57 MMT CO2 Equivalent, while Energy was responsible for 328.3. Moreover, “Methane (CH4) emissions in the United States decreased by 6% between 1990 and 2014. During this time period, emissions increased from sources associated with agricultural activities, while emissions decreased from sources associated with the exploration and production of natural gas and petroleum products.” This, by any rational analysis, should be the sector where our focus could be most productively focused, but paradoxically it is rarely mentioned.

  2. Rev. Douglas Hunt
    Posted April 17, 2016 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Actually, even your article, in buried references, shows substantial disagreement between your recommendations, especially in terms of time frames, and Mr. Mckibben.