Fugitive Methane Worsens Warming

Originally published on Forbes.com on August 8, 2021

Detection of methane leaks is important to the oil and gas industry by saving wasted gas. Reducing emissions now rather than later will also lower the current rate of global temperature rise.

The word fugitive methane conjures up the Harrison Ford movie, where the hero was always running and hiding. It’s a good concept for methane leakages that occur in all phases of natural gas production and processing, except they are not heroes.

Methane has also been hiding from the press which has paid most attention to controlling carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas (GHG). But the poor sister has now awakened to tell us she is responsible for 25% of present global warming. The world should have had a second Paris Agreement for methane back in 2015.

But its not too late as the “methane lever” can still be moved to make a substantial change to current warming by global GHG emissions.

Sources of methane emissions.

Methane is the second important greenhouse gas. Methane emissions are surreptitious and really bad. The global warming effect of methane is 20-80 times that of carbon dioxide, depending on duration (how many warming years are counted).

The amount of methane in the atmosphere has more than doubled in the past 250 years since the industrial revolution

Fossil fuels, agriculture, and waste management comprise the big three sources of man-made methane. In the US, methane emissions from oil and gas are almost half of all man-made methane emissions.

Methane gas makes up the bulk of natural gas and is emitted by all phases of the oil and gas industry: from drilling and fracking of wells (i.e., upstream activities), to pipelines that transport oil or gas, to facilities that process the oil or gas (i.e., downstream activities), such as gas processing plants, petroleum refineries, and LNG trains.

Fugitive Methane Plume of natural gas (mostly methane) from a gas line in California

Figure 1. Plume of natural gas (mostly methane) from a gas line in California. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The picture shows a methane plume detected by NASA in summer 2020 that was identified as a leaking gas line in California. The operator was then able to confirm and repair the leak.

Methane Emissions from oil and gas industry.

A comprehensive study by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has addressed methane emissions over the entire USA:

The oil and gas industry releases 16 million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere, every year, along with other dangerous air pollution gases. 16 million metric tons per year is equivalent to 2.1 Bcfd which is equivalent to 210 shale gas wells each producing 10 MMcfd, a very good well rate. And at $3 per Mcf (methane is main component of natural gas), this would price out as $6.3 million per day. That’s a lot of money to be made if this wasted methane gas could be saved.

The total volume of methane released in the US each year would provide natural gas for 10 million homes.

As a powerful greenhouse gas, methane is responsible for 25% of the warming that we are experiencing now. The single fastest, least-cost avenue to slow down the rate of warming today is by restricting methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.

Some policy conversations under-emphasize the role of methane in global warming. That’s because metrics used by the United Nations and others are tied to the 100-year warming potential of greenhouse gases. But the warming due to methane is 80 times that of CO2 over the first 20-year period. So on a short timescale, more methane bumps up the speed of warming, and less methane cuts it back.

“The amount of warming over the long term is important, but so is the speed of warming,” Dr Ilessa Ocko, senior climate scientist of EDF, said. “By overlooking the near-term warming from methane, we’re missing an opportunity to make a real difference right now, in our lifetime. This truly is the methane moment.”

Governments must implement regulations that will cut methane pollution from oil and gas development by up to 65 percent by 2025. This will move the US, and the world, toward a safer climate space.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can build on what some states have successfully put in place for the oil and gas industry — a suite of strong controls that deploy, frequently, methane detectors to search for leaks and then repair the leaking pipe or container.   

Global Methane Assessment.

The UN has recently highlighted worldwide methane emissions in a comprehensive report.

Worldwide, 60% of methane emissions come from man-made sources. Fossil fuels contribute a third of this (20%) and oil and gas makes up two-thirds of that – oil and gas makes 13% of all global methane emissions.

The good news is that applying current methods to the three principal sources, fossil, waste, and agriculture, could mitigate global methane emissions by 45% by 2030. This would agree with IPCC’s goal to keep global warming to 1.5C by the year 2100.

For comparison, a 45 percent reduction in oil and gas methane emissions by 2025 would deliver the same 20-year climate benefit as closing one-third of the world’s coal-fired power plants.

A few other points amplify these statements. The biggest jump ever in methane emissions occurred in 2020, in spite of the pandemic. This is puzzling but could be due to a combination of human and natural causes. Half of the methane emissions due to human causes could be cut in the present decade by using current non-costly methods, and this would result in a drop in global warming of 0.3C by the 2040s.

Figure 2. MethaneSAT, artist impression, to be launched October 2022. Source: EDF.

Satellite search for super-emitters.

In their work, EDF takes pains to actually measure fugitive methane leaks, by satellite, aircraft flyovers, and ground-based methane detectors on towers (via infrared cameras). Their numbers are generally higher, but more realistic, than EPA numbers that are frequently based on theoretical calculations.

Satellite detectors are providing numbers, locations, and sources of emission plumes that will enable the world to see, and to act upon.

Some surprising results have been found. Oil and gas operations in Russia led to methane releases that rose 32% in 2020, plus sizeable emissions from a Canadian gas field and from coal mines in the Appalachia region of the US.

By combining data from satellites and ground-based detectors, a French company called Kayrros, has recorded, at any one time, about 100 big methane leaks across the world as well as hundreds of smaller ones.

Jean Bastin, Product Manager at Kayrros, explains, “Over one year, those 100 leaks are releasing 20 megatonnes of methane, with around half of those attributable to the oil and gas sector and other heavy industries. This means that this sector emits an amount of methane that is equivalent to the yearly carbon dioxide emissions of both Germany and France combined.”

Carbon-Mapper is a joint public-private enterprise out of California. Two satellites will be launched in 2023, building to a suite of 20 satellites eventually. Identifying super-emitters is the main goal of Carbon-Mapper, because a previous flyover project in California discovered that only 1% of sites produced 50% of methane emissions. The largest emissions were from landfills, followed by agriculture, then oil and gas.

MethaneSAT, a subsidiary of EDF, will be launched by SpaceX in October 2022, and will be able to focus on a wider segment of earth, although with less resolution, to enable a kind of movie that will compute the emission intensity and pinpoint where the methane source lies. It will concentrate on emissions from the oil and gas industry, especially lower emissions from many sources that can add up to a serious overall level.

EDF’s emphasis on measurement of methane emissions is invaluable to the oil and gas industry who have been flying blind in this aspect. Near real-time data from MethaneSAT should enable companies to identify leaks quickly, and any leaks plugged in wellheads or storage tanks or pipelines will translate to savings of otherwise wasted gas, and benefit the bottomline.

Such data will also help regulators immensely and assist other company stakeholders in assessing how well a company is addressing climate change.

As stated by EDF, this truly is the methane moment. By reducing methane emissions now rather than later, the world will lower the speed of global warming and this turns out to be important.

To wrap up, a media briefing will highlight the findings on methane in the latest report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report, due out Monday, August 9, explores the latest science on the physical impacts of climate change, including methane. As the first such report since 2013, anticipation is running high.