Fugitive Methane Emissions: The Climate Implications of U.S. Shale Gas Exports
U.S. natural gas production is booming. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), production grew by 23 percent from 2007 to 2012. Now—with production projected to continue growing in the decades ahead—U.S. lawmakers and companies are considering exporting this resource internationally. But what are the climate implications of doing so?
This is a topic I sought to address in my testimony on May 7, before the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power. The hearing, “U.S. Energy Abundance: Exports and the Changing Global Energy Landscape,” examined both the opportunities and risks presented by exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG). I sought to emphasize a number of points that are often overlooked in this discussion; in particular, fugitive methane emissions and cost-effective options for reducing them.
Environmental Impacts of Natural Gas Production
While burning natural gas releases half the amount of carbon dioxide as coal, producing the fuel comes with considerable environmental risks according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Government Accountability Office and Center for Energy, Economics and Policy. We’re already seeing these risks play out domestically. In addition to habitat disruption and impacts on local air and water quality, one of the most significant implications of natural gas production is fugitive methane emissions.
Methane is the primary component of natural gas. It escapes into the air as “fugitive methane emissions” along every stage of the natural gas production process.
The estimated leakage rate for natural gas systems was only about 1.4 percent of total production in 2011, according to the most recent greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory. While this may not sound like much, it contributes significantly to climate change because methane is a potent greenhouse gas—at least 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide. In fact, this fugitive methane amounts to more greenhouse gas emissions than all of the direct and indirect emissions from U.S. iron and steel, cement and aluminum manufacturing combined. There is much need—and opportunity—for reducing these emissions.
Natural Gas Exports and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The EIA projects that the U.S. will begin exporting LNG within the next five years, and that the country will become a net exporter by 2020. Exporting LNG may exacerbate the fugitive methane problem along with other environmental issues. Exporting natural gas raises three primary concerns from a climate change perspective:
1) More Fugitive Methane
EIA projects that exporting LNG would boost domestic production of natural gas, with roughly three-quarters of this production coming from hydraulic fracturing of shale gas. Increased production would mean increased fugitive methane, which would accelerate climate change. The good news is that there are cost-effective strategies to reduce fugitive methane emissions, but state and federal policies will be needed to ensure that these are widely implemented.
2) An Energy- and Emissions-Intensive Process
In order to send natural gas overseas, you must liquefy it, transport it and then re-gasify it. This is an extremely energy- and emissions-intensive process. According to the National Energy Technology Lab’s 2012 Natural Gas Technology Assessment, liquefaction, transport and gasification would add roughly 15 percent to U.S. natural gas production’s life cycle GHG emissions (see the figure below and my testimony for more details). These additional emissions more than double the total upstream GHG emissions from U.S. natural gas systems, significantly reducing the climate advantage that natural gas has over higher-emitting fuels like oil and coal.
3) Domestic and International Energy Market Implications
Domestically, LNG exports would likely raise natural gas prices, resulting in the greater use of coal for U.S. electric power generation. Internationally, exporting LNG would contribute to an expanded natural gas market. This could produce mixed results: On the one hand, greater natural gas use could result in a slight reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions if the fuel replaces higher-carbon sources like coal and oil. However, the full climate benefit of this fuel-switching diminishes if cheaper, more readily available natural gas also undercuts efficiency and displaces the use of lower-carbon renewable and nuclear energy sources. The International Energy Agency accounts for this mixed bag of results in its Golden Rules scenario (in which the natural gas industry adheres to minimum environmental standards). It projects that greater supplies of natural gas would reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by a mere 0.5 percent annually by 2035.
These scenarios, however, do not account for current or projected rates of fugitive methane leaks. To put this in perspective, EPA estimates that the scale of leaked methane from global natural gas and oil systems is projected to be more than 10 times greater than the IEA’s estimated CO2 reductions from more abundant natural gas. In other words, while exporting natural gas may result in lower global carbon dioxide emissions, there is a significant risk that increased upstream fugitive methane could more than offset these benefits.
Lessening the Impact
Clearly, we need U.S. policies to reduce fugitive methane and other GHG emissions if natural gas and LNG are to be part of the climate change solution. To that end, there are ways to reduce natural gas’s climate impacts. The use of three cost-effective technologies and federal/state policy interventions could bring the average fugitive methane leakage rate down significantly, to below 1 percent. WRI details these technologies and policy pathways in its working paper, Clearing the Air: Reducing Upstream Methane Emissions from U.S. Natural Gas Systems. I also gave a comprehensive list of policy recommendations in my full Congressional testimony.
Federal legislators could take several actions to further reduce GHGs from natural gas systems, including, expanding applied technology research; providing technical and regulatory assistance to states in developing and implementing environmental regulations; and most importantly, putting a price on carbon or adopting a clean energy standard to encourage private investments in low-carbon technologies.
At the hearing yesterday, there was a great deal of enthusiasm for the positive role that LNG exports could play to advance U.S. interests economically and geopolitically. But many members also expressed words of caution, recognizing the potential environmental implications. There was general agreement among committee members and witnesses that protections should be in place to ensure that natural gas production is developed responsibly. This is an important opportunity for the U.S. to further improve its economic and geopolitical standing by showing leadership in addressing global climate change.
We can do this by ensuring that natural gas is used as a bridge to a low-carbon pathway—not as a panacea for addressing climate change. This requires both reducing upstream GHGs, and—if gas-fired power plants are to be a part of a longer-term energy future—using carbon capture and storage technology. In other words, to achieve climate stabilization at relatively safe levels within 20 to 30 years, emissions from natural gas usage will need to decline to a fraction of current levels. We also need common-sense policies that promote the development, deployment and export of a variety of low-emissions technologies, including renewables. We must ensure that the country’s use of natural gas enables, rather than hinders, a low-carbon transition.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
The U.S. reported more than 55,000 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, in a sign that the outbreak is not letting up as the Fourth of July weekend kicks off.
- The U.S. Isn't in a Second Wave of Coronavirus – The First Wave ... ›
- Navajo Nation Has Highest Covid-19 Infection Rate in the U.S. ... ›
- U.S. Coronavirus Cases Top 2 Million as All 50 States Start ... ›
By Jason Bruck
Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
- Drone Footage Captures Rare Finless Porpoises in Hong Kong ... ›
- Brazil's Amazon River Dolphin Faces Extinction After Fishing ... ›
- 10 Surprising Dolphin 'Superpowers' - EcoWatch ›
Sunscreen pollution is accelerating the demise of coral reefs globally by causing permanent DNA damage to coral. gonzalo martinez / iStock / Getty Images Plus
On July 29, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a controversial bill prohibiting local governments from banning certain types of sunscreens.
- Your Guide to Reef Friendly Sunscreens - EcoWatch ›
- Hundreds of Sunscreens Don't Work or Have Unsafe Ingredients ... ›
- FDA Study: Sunscreen Chemicals Seep Into the Bloodstream ... ›
By Kelli McGrane
Oat milk is popping up at coffee shops and grocery stores alike, quickly becoming one of the trendiest plant-based milks.
- Is Oat Milk Gluten-Free? - EcoWatch ›
- What Nutritionists Think About Starbucks' Three New Plant-Based ... ›
- 6 Alternatives to Milk: Which Is the Healthiest? - EcoWatch ›
"Emissions from pyrotechnic displays are composed of numerous organic compounds as well as metals," a new study reports. Nodar Chernishev / EyeEm / Getty Images
Fireworks have taken a lot of heat recently. In South Dakota, fire experts have said President Trump's plan to hold a fireworks show is dangerous and public health experts have criticized the lack of plans to enforce mask wearing or social distancing. Now, a new study shows that shooting off fireworks at home may expose you and your family to dangerous levels of lead, copper and other toxins.
- No Social Distancing or Mask Requirement at Trump's Mt ... ›
- Trump's Fireworks Show at Mt. Rushmore Is a Dangerous Idea, Fire ... ›
By Ashutosh Pandey
Billions worth of valuable metals such as gold, silver and copper were dumped or burned last year as electronic waste produced globally jumped to a record 53.6 million tons (Mt), or 7.3 kilogram per person, a UN report showed on Thursday.
Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
Europe Leads the Way<p>While most of the e-waste was generated in Asia (24.9 Mt) in 2019, Europe led the charts on a per person basis with 16.2 kg per capita, the report said.</p><p>But the continent also recorded the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/the-eu-declares-war-on-e-waste/a-51108790" target="_blank">highest documented formal e-waste collection and recycling</a> rate at 42.5%, still below its target of 65%. Europe was well ahead of the others on this front. Asia ranked second with 11.7%.</p><p>The authors said while more that 70% of the world's population was covered by some form of e-waste policy or laws, not much was being done toward implementation and enforcement of the regulations to encourage the take-up of a collection and recycling infrastructure due to lack of investment and political motivation.</p><p>"You have to think about new economic systems," said Kühr.</p><p>One approach could be that consumers no longer buy the products, but only the service they offer. The device would remain the property of the maker, who would then have an interest in offering his customers the best service and the necessary equipment. The maker would also be interested in designing his products in such a way that they are easier to repair and easier to recycle, Kühr said.</p>
- Dangerous Chemicals From E-Waste Found in Black Plastics From ... ›
- Electronic Waste Study Finds $65 Billion in Raw Materials ... ›
- Electronic Waste: New EU Rules Target Throwaway Culture ... ›
- COVID-19 Masks Are Polluting Beaches and Oceans - EcoWatch ›
- Plastic Packaging Use Increases During the Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Coronavirus Worsens Thailand's Plastic Waste Crisis - EcoWatch ›
- Coronavirus Plastic Waste Polluting the Environment - EcoWatch ›