In fact, this was a central topic at the triennial World Gas Conference (WGC) held last summer, for the first time in Washington DC. For our booming shale business, more methane capture and fewer emissions are core goals.
This makes perfect sense of course. Natural gas, for instance, is itself composed of 95% methane (CH4). Thus, methane is a product to be sold, and the industry always seeks to “not let it leak out.” In short, there is a natural financial incentive to capture as much methane as possible. This maximizing of efficiency is obviously good for business.
Just as importantly, the industry knows that natural gas is the clear winner in the global objective to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while still supplying reliable and affordable energy. Gas emits 50% less CO2 than coal and 30% less than oil, but it is also the essential backup for intermittent renewables: “Natural Gas Is The Flexibility Needed For More Wind And Solar.”
Gas companies realize that getting a firm grip on methane leaks really puts them in the driver’s seat as we race toward our future energy world. Increasingly, natural gas is being confirmed as a “destination fuel,” no longer just a “bridge fuel.”
Indeed, some perspective on methane before we dig in more. CO2 constitutes 82% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with methane at 10%. Oil and gas operations account for a quarter of all U.S. methane emissions, meaning that oil and gas are just 2.5% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. This is a really low figure considering their incalculable benefits:
- oil and gas supply nearly 65% of all U.S. energy
- oil supplies 97% of U.S. transport needs; gas supplies 34% of U.S. electricity
- oil and gas support over 10.3 million jobs here, and add hundreds of billions in revenues each year
- oil and gas are essential to more solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and electric vehicles
Always seeking to enhance environmental performance, the U.S. oil and gas industry works with a variety of partners, ranging from university researchers to other energy companies to environmental groups themselves, to help develop and deploy state-of-the art technologies and practices to achieve emission reduction goals.
In fact, participating at the 2018 WCA event, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) reported on the evolution being made in oil and gas in cutting methane emissions. EDF noted how industry leaders “competed on the main stage to tout their methane management commitments.”
This focus on methane reductions has led to clear success. Data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gases and Sinks: 1990–2017 show demonstrable progress being made by the industry when it comes to cutting methane emissions, despite our oil and gas now being at all time records for production, usage, and exports.
Let us center on natural gas because it clearly has become our go-to fuel for new energy demand. Since 1990:
- Despite gas utilities adding over 730,000 miles of pipeline to serve almost 20 million more customers, yearly CH4 emissions from distribution systems have fallen 70-75%.
- Industry-wide natural gas emissions as a rate of production (the “leakage rate”) is 1.2%, well below the threshold required to justify fuel switching to gas on environmental grounds.
- The ratio of methane emissions per unit of gas produced has plummeted 45%.
- Total CH4 emissions from gas systems have fallen 18%, even though production is up 55%.
Again, we must always keep things in perpsective when weighing the pros and cons of shale. Researchers led by Penn State University, for instance, have found that methane emissions from gas wells and infrastructure in the mighty Marcellus shale play centered in Pennsylvania are just a tiny 0.4% of total production. At 18 Bcf/d, Pennsylvania now accounts for over 20% of all U.S. gas output.
The point is that more and more government regulation being proposed by some simply cannot be the way forward. Unfortunately, much of what passes today for sound environmental policy is typically ineffective and/or leads to unintended consequences. For example, duplicative federal regulations (such as the Obama administration’s 2016 Methane and Waste Prevention Rule) soar costs and can push new oil and gas projects to be delayed or even canceled.
This would mean thousands of jobs and billions in governmental revenues lost. And this would install more public debt and less money available to construct roads, hospital, and schools, not to mention higher energy prices for American families and businesses.
The good news is that in September EPA proposed improvements to the 2016 standards on emissions from new oil and gas production sources. This is designed to help streamline implementation and cut regulatory duplication with state requirements and decrease unnecessary burdens on our producers. Recently confirmed Administrator Andrew Wheeler called them “common sense reforms” to slash unnecessary red tape and give the regulatory certainty needed for the industry to keep providing reliable and affordable energy.
Particularly as U.S. oil and gas production continues to boom to heights never previously dreamed of, and as our gas exports especially help cut global emissions around the world, we must be very careful not to overregulate ourselves.
To be sure, if we screw up our shale boom with unnecessary above-ground limitations, OPEC and Russia will laugh all the way to the bank. In fact, for natural gas especially, just like New England’s anti-pipeline stance has non-sensically done to itself, we could very easily find ourselves relying on Russian LNG to meet our rising gas demand if we choke our own domestic suppliers.
And all the while we would have missed a golden opportunity to supply the world with affordable, reliable, and cleaner American natural gas.
As we move forward, a single headline tells us all that we need to know: “Putin’s Other American Propaganda Effort: Anti-Fracking News.”