Making natural gas greener was a major topic in the recent World Gas Conference 2018. It turns out that there is a very economical way of accomplishing this, by cutting methane leaks.

Already, natural gas has helped reduce our total greenhouse gas emissions significantly. According to Carnegie Mellon University, shifting from coal to gas has lowered power plants’ CO2 emissions per MWh by 27% over the last 12 years.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions per MWh

However, this positive impact on our environment is diminished due to the fact that methane leaks into the atmosphere through the natural gas supply chain. Natural gas is still more eco-friendly than coal. Yet, some of the participants in the World Gas Conference noted that natural gas risks tarnishing its image as a more eco-friendly alternative to coal.

How Much Natural Gas Methane Is Leaking?

So exactly how much natural gas methane is leaking into the atmosphere through the gas supply chain? According to a study by the EDF (Environmental Defense Fund), the US oil and gas supply chain releases between 11 and 15 MMT (million metric tons) of methane per year. This data was collected through an aerial infrared camera survey of about 8,000 production sites. The data shows 4% of surveyed sites having at least one plume emitting two to seven times the amount of methane from common sites. Extrapolating this data across all productions sites, reveals that somewhere around 13 MMT of methane is emitted each year.

US Methane Emissions by Inventory SectorTo put this number in proportion, the annual agriculture and waste methane releases are about 15 MMT, according to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). With this new data from the EDF, the total annual release of methane into the atmosphere by human activities would be about 35 MMT. This puts the natural gas methane leaks at about 37% of the total methane released by human activity.

This methane leakage from the natural gas supply chain is enough to fuel about 10 million homes.  It’s a significant loss and calls for attention.  This loss represents a market value of $2 billion. To a certain degree, it also counteracts the good that natural gas is doing by replacing coal as a primary energy source.

What Can Be Done to Clean the Natural Gas Supply Chain

To clean up the natural gas supply chain, a dedication from gas companies to address and resolve the leaks is needed. The EDF noted that companies need to “set absolute targets to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas, such as a 75 percent reduction by 2025.” They also noted that the problem is primarily from upstream oil and gas operations, not midstream pipeline infrastructure nor downstream energy consumption. Hence, they feel the goal of a 75% reduction in methane releases is entirely feasible.  Half of this reduction would be at absolutely no cost.

Even before this release, many oil and gas companies have taken proactive steps to reduce methane leaks.  Exxon Mobile Corp., the largest US gas producer, announced their plans to reduced methane emissions 15% by 2020. Italian oil and gas company ENI set their goal at 80% by 2025. ENI has already been working on this goal since 2014, and in just two years already cut 40% of methane emissions. ENI feels they will hit their 80% goal six years ahead of schedule.

However, Exxon and ENI are not the only companies that are going green and trying to cut down methane emissions. EQT, a Pennsylvania oil and natural gas exploration and pipeline company, also believe in working hard to cut down emissions. On the company’s behalf, Rob McNally stated, “We fully agree as an industry we need to live up to that reputation as a cleaner energy source and do what we can.” Many other companies are jumping on board and taking the steps and initiative to repair methane leaks.

A Positive Outlook on Methane Leaks

While methane emissions are higher than previously thought, there is an upside to the story. Many see these methane emissions as an opportunity. Silvia van Waveren (from the Robeco Institutional Asset Management) explained, “I would like to stress that we see the methane issue more as a business opportunity than a risk.” Leaking methane is lost fuel that could have been sold. Most of the leaks are due to malfunctioning equipment. Natural gas plants can improve their bottom line.  Gas plants need to implement systems that would quickly detect these malfunctions.  The also need to repair faulty equipment in a timely manner.

Cutting methane leaks can and will happen. As natural gas leaks are addressed through better maintenance, the reputation as a clean energy source will improve. The future of natural gas still has several decades of longevity, and now is the time to make the needed adjustments.

Milestone Companies is an experienced natural gas pipeline and facilities maintenance company.  Many gas companies have used our services to locate their methane leaks and resolve the malfunctioning equipment.  We assist gas companies with a proactive natural gas pipeline maintenance plan. This makes the natural gas supply chain greener and improving our customers’ profits.  We invite you to check out our oil and gas construction services and see how we assist our clients.