Big Oil Moves on Its Own to Cut Methane Pollution

While Republicans push to roll back Obama-era rules, ExxonMobil plans to reduce venting of the powerful greenhouse gas.
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A gas flare near Sidney, Montana, on Feb. 14, 2015. 

Photographer: Daniel Acker

An ExxonMobil subsidiary this week said it would root out methane leaks and upgrade production technology as part of an effort to manage industrial pollution, the latest move by an energy sector that’s beginning to take matters into its own hands while the Trump administration works to roll back Obama-era climate rules.

The quiet announcement contrasts with recent events in Washington, where courts, Congress, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have been wrangling over the fate of two regulations meant to reduce methane emissions. One rule applies to new natural-gas facilities nationwide, while the other affects natural gas production on federal and Native American land. In July, a U.S. appeals court blocked the EPA from postponing implementation of the first rule. This week, a federal judge in San Francisco heard arguments on the Department of the Interior’s attempt to rollback the second rule. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has weighed in as well, voting earlier this month to strip funding for both regulations. 

Meanwhile, ExxonMobil Corp. unit XTO Energy’s plans to fix or upgrade its infrastructure may accomplish more than the EPA rule would require. That rule would only apply to new facilities, but the company said it will upgrade existing equipment. Much of the lost methane, a potent greenhouse gas, comes from the use of equipment that manages natural gas production flow. Venting such gas into the air is one way of balancing the system, but the downside is that methane has been 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in causing global warming over the past century.

XTO said it will phase out the use of so-called high-bleed pneumatic devices within three years, replacing them with versions that run on compressed air. 

Source: Environmental Protection Agency
XTO Energy’s move didn’t come out of the blue. ExxonMobil worked earlier this year with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to test airborne methane sensing. The company has also participated in testing with the University of Texas, Stanford University, Harvard University, and the Environmental Defense Fund [EDF]. 

Oil companies have attended to options beyond pneumatic devices and leaky pipes. In the run-up to the December 2015 Paris Agreement, six leading European oil-and-gas majors advocated for climate-pollution pricing as a way to reduce emissions economy-wide. Industry critics have pointed out for many years that lost gas from U.S. public lands means lower revenue for the federal government. Reducing losses is a win for business, taxpayers, and the climate, or so the thinking goes.

With or without Obama-era rules, the federal government isn’t the only game in town. Mark Brownstein, vice president for climate and energy at the EDF, said that despite the anti-regulatory tone in Washington, state governments are beginning to enforce their own rules. In Colorado, he noted that natural gas pollution regulations have been in place for two years, with little fanfare. “The world certainly hasn’t come to an end there,” he said.

Methane is responsible for about one-fifth of global warming attributable to human activity (average temperatures have risen about 0.9 degrees Celsius since record-keeping began in the 1880s). Any volume of high-flying air in 2016 had on average 1,843 parts of methane for every one billion parts of everything else, or about 250 percent more than the pre-industrial atmosphere. And pollution is on the rise, accumulating faster than at any time in the last 20 years—resembling the most worrisome of greenhouse-gas emission scenarios. 

Methane’s increasing presence in the atmosphere is attributable to a diverse set of factors. Leading Earth system scientists said that most of the increase may come from tropical rice-cultivation, while another big contributor is the digestive activity of cows. But the industrial and energy sectors are a large component, too—and one that can arguably be more easily contained. 

Natural gas and petroleum were responsible for 31 percent of U.S. methane emissions in 2015, compared with 25 percent from farm-animal emissions and another 10 percent from “manure management.” But while the sector most associated with climate pollution has slowly begun to address its role in global warming, there is still be a long way to go: the ExxonMobil unit’s statement, while touting its planned reduction in methane emissions, doesn’t use the words “climate” or “warming” in doing so.

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