In the air – how the oil and gas industry is taking on methane

Andrew Tunnicliffe 1 September 2020 (Last Updated August 28th, 2020 14:45)

You’d be forgiven for believing CO2 is the biggest threat to global climate security, but there are other greenhouse gasses that pose a similar, if not more present threat. We speak with the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers’ Wendy Brown about the industry’s role in cutting methane emissions in the face of recent critical studies.

In the air – how the oil and gas industry is taking on methane
“We really want to look at this in a holistic way, and look at all the gases that are responsible for the rise in temperature,” said Frans Timmermans. Credit: Varodrig

If you look a little closer, the statistics surrounding methane gas are frightening. According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the gas is 84 times more potent than CO2 in the short-term. The US-based not-for-profit organisation says that methane, which is classified as a greenhouse gas, is responsible for a quarter of all man made global warming today.

“By emitting just a little bit of methane,” says EDF chief scientist Steve Hamburg, “mankind is greatly accelerating the rate of climatic change”.

With much of the current focus on CO2 emissions, methane is largely absent from the headlines. However, figures such as those offered by the EDF are a stark reminder that global warming is driven by more than just one factor. In recent months it seems that lawmakers, at least in some parts of the world, have switched on to the devastating impact that other, non-CO2, emissions are having.

Attention turns to all greenhouse gases

Speaking in March, European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said that the Commission was looking to turn its attention to all greenhouse gases, including methane from the oil and gas industry. “We really want to look at this in a holistic way, and look at all the gases that are responsible for the rise in temperature,” he said.

His remarks came just weeks before two studies revealed the real impact of methane gas emissions coming from the global oil and gas sector. The studies, both published in July by Stanford University’s Global Carbon Partnership, concluded that methane emissions were the highest ever recorded and would contribute towards a warming of up to 4°C by the end of the century, the point at which natural disasters and social unrest would become “commonplace”. The group pointed the finger at the oil and gas industry – as well as coal mining, some elements of farming, and landfill – for the dramatic rise.

However, while Europe has signalled its intent to act, policy across the Atlantic has lurched the other way. The Trump administration has recently rolled back legislation introduced by Barack Obama that compelled companies in the US to detect and fix methane leaks. The move, something President Trump says is part of his “energy dominance” agenda, will apply to new facilities and those opened since 2016.

Contrary to what you might expect however, the industry has not welcomed the change. It says that the rules were necessary for the sector to keep on top of its climate footprint.

“To be very clear, methane emission reduction is a priority issue for the oil and gas industry,” says the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers’ (IOGP) environment director, Wendy Brown.

“According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the oil and gas sector accounts for around 13% of all methane emissions, both manmade and natural. That is probably not as much as most people expect, but still a significant portion and our industry is fully aware of its responsibility to bring these emissions down.”

Addressing fossil fuel use amid rising energy demand

The Global Carbon Project says that annual methane emissions have risen by nine percent since the beginning of the century to 2017, equal to putting 350 million additional cars on the road today. Whilst agriculture was singled out as the biggest contributor, researchers said that part of addressing the issue was to cut the use of fossil fuels, something Brown suggests isn’t going to be easy to achieve.

“According to the IEA, in 2019 oil and gas together accounted for more than 50% of global energy demand and, even in their most ambitious energy scenario, 47% of the world’s energy mix in 2040 will still come from oil and gas.”

She added that by 2040 global energy demand will have risen by about a quarter, driven by rising incomes and a projected 1.6 billion additional people on the planet.

If, as is suggested, demand does rise, the industry must act to address its own methane emissions. Brown says that according to IOGP’s data, 2018 industry methane emissions came from venting (46%), flaring (16%), fugitive losses (12%), energy for combustion (5%), and unspecified (21%), although there are wide geographical variations.

She explains: “For example, in Africa methane emissions from flaring were the largest contributor at 43%, whilst in Europe 66% of emissions came from venting.”

Applying new technologies and best practice

Among the tools the industry can utilise to help drive down emissions, Brown says that new technologies and best practice are critical. Monitoring too has a vital role to play, although there are what she describes as “significant challenges” here; although the industry is “working hard to improve data accuracy”.

In the first quarter of 2020, a University of Michigan study, based on research partly funded by the oil and gas sector, revealed that offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico were emitting twice the amount of methane as had previously been thought, significantly higher than current inventories suggest.

The study further said that US Environmental Protection Agency estimates were inaccurate because of errors in platform counts. In addition, persistent emissions from shallow-water facilities, particularly those primarily focused on natural gas, were higher than inventoried and larger, older facilities situated in shallow waters tended to produce episodic, disproportionately high spikes of methane emissions.

Brown says that the IOGP works with regulators around the world, to improve safety, environmental, and social performance.

“We are working closely with all kinds of different stakeholders to share local versus international experiences and case studies, resulting in more widespread best practices. From our experience, there is a huge level of engagement from all kinds of stakeholders including lawmakers, regulators, industry, and science sharing the same goal: reducing emissions while meeting the energy demand,” she adds.

“Often a range of multiple techniques and combinations of techniques are necessary to characterise different sources, cross validate measurements, and operate in different environments. Cross validation, including top-down and bottom-up data is part of the data quality assurance process,” Brown continues.

Elevating available data

Technologies – which can be classified in two ways, emissions detection/quantification and emissions reduction/avoidance– include those deployed at widely varying spatial and temporal resolutions and scales, from ground-based (handheld cameras and drone-mounted sensors), to manned/unmanned aircraft, to satellites.

There are several emerging technologies and approaches to measurement that Brown says appear promising to elevate data available on oil and gas methane emissions: “Among them are satellites and other aerial detection instruments utilised during measurement campaigns.”

However, she called on regulators to create inclusive policy frameworks that ensure promising technologies are unlocked to help achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, including low-carbon technologies such as carbon capture utilisation and storage and blue hydrogen.

“The IOGP supports the use of well-designed and well-functioning market-based economy-wide mechanisms that achieve emissions reductions in the most cost effective way,” she adds. “Mechanisms such as emission trading systems or CO2 or greenhouse gas taxes provide market signals to encourage the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Today there are already numerous technologies available for reducing or avoiding methane emissions, including leak detection and repair programs, compressed air, electric or mechanical pneumatic controllers, vapour recovery units, and soft seal valves to help prevent, or at least reduce the impact of leaks.

Contrary to popular belief, the sector is taking its responsibilities seriously and has been for some time. It seems, in the US at least, Trump’s moves to partially deregulate the sector will have no consequence, as the industry looks to continue to raise its standards.

“Notwithstanding the rapid emergence of the coronavirus and economic crises, the industry recognises climate change as one of its biggest challenges and has been addressing it for some time,” Brown articulates.

“The oil and gas industry can play a significant role in fighting climate change… Two things are for sure: oil and gas will play a huge role in meeting the world’s energy demand in the years and decades to come, and our industry is committed to reducing emissions and further minimising our environmental footprint.”