Methane Emissions Threaten to Undermine Natural-Gas Offensive

The grainy black and white photograph taken with an infrared camera shows a smoky haze wafting from a natural gas storage tank.

That cloud is methane escaping, said Philip Swanson, administrator of a United Nations-led industry partnership aimed at curbing leakage of the primary component of natural gas. His presentation at the World Gas Conference in Paris on Tuesday highlighted how the energy being promoted as one of the solutions to fighting climate change is also contributing to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“This is a reputational issue for the industry,” Swanson said. Methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas, and yet data on emissions during production and transport of natural gas “are still patchy.”

Conference discussion of methane leakage came in the midst of an industry offensive by the biggest oil companies to promote natural gas as the cleanest fossil fuel. Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp., Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Total SA and BP Plc CEOs spoke in favor of using natural gas that would supplant dirtier coal-fired power. Demand for the energy is seen outpacing oil over the coming decades.

“Governments are seeing increasing natural gas in their economies but are starting to be concerned methane is undermining the economic benefits of gas,” Swanson said. “Some companies know more about methane emissions than others.”

Evaluating Methane

The Oil & Gas Methane Partnership, started in September as part of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition hosted by the UN Environment Program, was founded by seven gas-producing companies including Total, Statoil ASA and BG Group Plc.

The group is evaluating how much methane is emitted as natural gas is produced as well as looking at technological solutions to plugging the leaks, according to its website.

Flaring natural gas from oil wells, which produces carbon dioxide, is a far more visible way the industry emits greenhouse gases. It can be seen by satellite imagery and a World Bank-led movement is aimed at phasing out routine flaring by 2030. The methane seeping from production, processing and transport installations like valves, pumps and pipes is less obvious.

“Methane is less visible so it’s not talked about as much,” said Jerome Schmitt, executive vice president of sustainable development at Total, who also spoke at the conference. Natural gas is less polluting than coal as long as less than 3 percent escapes into the atmosphere, he said.

New Rules

“What we measure is about 1 percent so it’s not close but remains a factor in emissions,” he said. “We can only be credible on gas if we do it well.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will issue rules this year targeting new production and transmission systems to reduce methane leaks by 40 percent to 45 percent by 2025.

Climate activists including the Environmental Defense Fund have pushed President Barack Obama to target methane seeping from the oil and gas production and distribution networks, arguing it represents the largest source of greenhouse gases so far unaddressed by any regulation. The industry in the U.S. has pushed back, saying voluntary measures are sufficient. Both Exxon and Chevron have addressed the issue on their websites.

“It’s not rocket science” to fix the leaks, Swanson said. The partnership has identified nine “core” sources including pneumatic devices, seals and venting.

The EPA has estimated that about 30 million metric tons of methane was emitted in 2012, 9 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide accounted for more than 80 percent.

While methane is more potent, it only remains in the atmosphere about 12 years while carbon dioxide lingers for decades, according to the EPA. About one-third of the methane emissions come from oil and gas production and transmission.

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