February 23, 2018, by Daniel King
Just how clean is natural gas?
Natural gas is the bridge fuel source of the future that will carry the world until renewables take front stage. It is much cleaner than coal and oil, and it’s cheap. Natural gas is the best of the fossil fuels. Amid all this praise, it’s no wonder that the gas industry was surprised this week when the Energy Institute (EI) reminded the industry that while natural gas is cleaner than coal and oil, it is not a clean fuel per se. But, the EI said, a lot can be done cost-efficiently to make it cleaner than it currently is.
A survey by the EI found that the great majority of the gas industry underestimates the harmful effects of methane leakages along the gas production supply chain. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (28-36 times more potent over 100 years), so methane leaks are a serious challenge on the road to achieving the Paris Agreement emissions target, the EI noted.
It’s easy to understand the surprise. When you’ve been praised for supplying the world with a cleaner, cheaper fuel than oil and coal, it’s easy to push the issue of methane leaks to the backburner. Now the EI is bringing it to the forefront — but it has good news for the industry as well.
Cutting 40–50 percent of the current level of methane emissions from the production and distribution of natural gas would carry no additional net cost for the industry players, the institute said. As much as 75 percent of emissions in the gas industry can be cut, the International Energy Agency said in its 2017 World Energy Outlook.
What could spur the industry into action isn’t the news about zero net costs of much of the methane emission reduction, but the fact that this methane can actually be utilized for a profit. There are multiple technologies and measures available today that can be used to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas operations.
Christophe McGlade from the IEA added that “Implementing just those measures that pay for themselves, by monetising the captured methane, would have the same long-term impact on mitigating climate change as immediately shutting all existing coal-fired power plants in China.”
That’s certainly impressive, but how difficult would it be to cut these emissions? A Shell gas executive had a clear message for the industry: “Measure emissions accurately. Report them in a transparent way. And continually reduce emissions to maximise the full greenhouse gas advantages of natural gas.”
The oil and gas industry accounted for the largest portion of methane emissions in the U.S. in 2015, figures from the Environmental Protection Agency show. At 31 percent of the total — which itself represented a tenth of total U.S. greenhouse emissions — gas production was firmly in the lead.
Consistent efforts to reduce methane leaks in gas production and distribution, however, would be hard. The current administration, as part of its energy dominance agenda, is already trying to remove Obama-era regulations regarding the monitoring, reporting, and reduction of methane leaks.
Turning these leaks into money could do the trick. In December, the American Petroleum Institute announced a voluntary methane emission reduction program called The Environmental Partnership, which involves 26 companies to date. These companies have pledged to deploy the latest technology to monitor methane leaks, replace or upgrade old equipment responsible for the leaks, and seek other ways to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gas.