Quantcast
Climate
Shale gas drilling site, in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. Nicholas A. Tonelli, CC BY

How to Reduce Methane Emissions From the Oil and Gas Industry Across North America

By Kate Konschnik and Sarah Marie Jordaan

U.S. natural gas production has boomed in the past decade, driving gas prices sharply downward. Natural gas has become a competitive choice for electricity generation, edging out coal. Because gas contains less carbon than coal, greenhouse gas emissions from power plants have dropped, and the U.S. grid has become cleaner, more efficient and more flexible. More natural gas is also entering the power sectors in Mexico and Canada.

But the low-carbon profile of natural gas doesn't tell the whole story. Methane, its primary component, is a powerful greenhouse gas. It leaks to the atmosphere from wells and pipelines, contributing to climate change and reducing the climate benefit of using natural gas.


In 2016 U.S., Canadian and Mexican leaders pledged to reduce methane emissions from the oil and natural gas sector 40 to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025. Today, however, Canada is just beginning to contemplate more comprehensive regulatory limits on methane. Mexico has made only nonbinding pledges so far, and the Trump administration is rolling back federal methane regulation.

Scientists are still working to quantify methane emissions from oil and gas production, and to improve tools for detecting and reducing methane leaks. But even though much of the science is still uncertain, and the Trump administration is retreating from regulating methane leaks, we believe it is still possible and necessary to make progress on reducing methane emissions.

Many actors—including state and provincial governments, industry, and nongovernmental organizations—are working to advance methane measurement and mitigation efforts. To be effective, they need to work in concert. In a newly published synthesis article, we propose a North American Methane Reduction Framework to coordinate regulations, voluntary industry actions and scientific developments in methane estimation and mitigation. This approach can bridge the divide between science and policy, and drive new research that in turn can support better policies when governments are ready to act.

Measurement Gaps and Partial Responses

Despite huge advances, large gaps in methane emissions inventories remain. The magnitude of leaks from oil and gas infrastructure remains disputed and insufficiently measured.

Regional studies have found that up to 90 percent of emissions come from a small number of sources that leak large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Detecting and managing these "super-emitters" is an undeveloped area of research, but offers the potential for major reductions.

There also are many discrepancies in how methane emissions are measured from place to place. States and provinces have inconsistent reporting requirements, applying different thresholds over which facilities must report emissions. And there are unexplained differences between facility-level estimates of methane coming out of leaky valves and pipes on one hand, and measurements of methane in the atmosphere near oil and gas facilities.

Meanwhile, mitigation work is proceeding slowly. Companies have detected and limited some methane leaks, recapturing what represents lost product. However, earnings from recovering fugitive methane are not always sufficient to justify voluntary action.

This suggests a need for regulation. But the U.S. and Canadian national governments have limited authority to regulate methane leaks from oil and gas production, so states and provinces are in the driver's seat. To date, Alberta and British Columbia have set targets, but are still developing regulations. Although natural gas is produced in 32 U.S. states, only a handful require energy companies to conduct bottom-up monitoring and repair leaks. And only California conducts atmospheric monitoring statewide to track top-down methane trends. In Mexico, the regulatory framework for oil and gas is nascent.

Partnering to Find Solutions

Our framework encourages cross-sector collaborations and scientific research that informs public policy. Scientists from industry, nongovernment organizations and universities can work together to share data and analyze emissions profiles at oil and gas sites, so long as their research is truly independent and peer-reviewed. State agencies can agree to harmonize reporting standards in order to facilitate research by scientists in all sectors. Companies can partner with enforcement agencies to deploy new sensors and measurement tools.

There are precedents for this kind of collaboration. For example, an innovative partnership between industry, academics and the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund has brought together researchers to collect data and conduct methane estimation and measurements. This work is designed to improve government emissions inventories and inform mitigation policies, and is distinct from advocating for specific policy outcomes.

Similar partnerships have helped to drive solutions to other problems during national leadership voids. For example, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative is a coalition of governments, companies, investors and civil society organizations that promotes standards for industry reporting of oil, gas and mining revenues. While its impacts vary from country to country, the initiative has been credited with establishing transparency as an international norm and promoting dialogue between governments, businesses and nongovernment organizations.

A Continental Framework

The challenge of driving action from below is to ensure that multiple actors align their efforts. Our article lays out a 10-step North American Methane Reduction process that is designed to jump-start this conversation.

It starts by assessing existing policies in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Next, the framework aims to iteratively improve policy decisions by continually advancing science and innovation around emissions, based on the number and age of oil and gas components; identifying and characterizing "super-emitters"; improving measurement and detection technologies; and finding more cost-effective mitigation strategies. This approach recognizes that policymaking cannot always wait for completion of scientific research—but it can be informed by the latest developments and can facilitate new research.

The Trump administration has slammed the brakes on regulating fugitive methane emissions, but it cannot wish the problem away. Beyond climate concerns, events such as the 2010 pipeline explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno, California, and the 2015-16 Aliso Canyon gas leak that displaced thousands of residents from the Porter Ranch neighborhood in Los Angeles, underscore the safety risks of poorly maintained oil and gas infrastructure.

Plugging methane leaks is no simple task. Management requires measurement, and this international, cross-jurisdictional challenge requires active coordination across many groups, including industry, environmental organizations, academics, national and subnational governments, and public health and safety agencies. Our framework presents a path for integrating science and policy and addressing this uncertain challenge to move North America toward a lower carbon future.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Sam Murphy

Got Nondairy Alternative Milk?

By Sam Schipani

More and more, ecologically minded milk consumers are turning to nondairy products to minimize their carbon hoofprints. Sales of almond milk shot up by 250 percent between 2011 and 2016. Meanwhile, consumption of dairy milk has plummeted 37 percent since the 1970s, according to the USDA.

Keep reading... Show less
A burger made with a blend of beef and mushrooms. Mushroom Council

'Blended Burger' Allows a Simple Shift to More Sustainable Eating

By Richard Waite, Daniel Vennard and Gerard Pozzi

Burgers are possibly the most ubiquitous meal on Americans' dinner plates, but they're also among the most resource-intensive: Beef accounts for nearly half of the land use and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the food Americans eat.

Although there's growing interest in plant-based burgers and other alternatives, for the millions of people who still want to order beef, there's a better burger out there: a beef-mushroom blend that maintains, or even enhances, that meaty flavor with significantly less environmental impact.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Old White Truck / Flickr

The Last Straw? EU Official Hints Ban on Single-Use Plastic Across Europe

A top EU official hinted that legislation to cut plastic waste in Europe is coming soon.

Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the European Commission, made the comment after Britain's environment minister Michael Gove, a pro-Brexiter, suggested that staying in the EU would make it harder for the UK to create environmental laws such as banning plastic drinking straws.

Keep reading... Show less
Energy
Flare from gas well. Ken Doerr / Flickr

Court Orders Trump Administration to Enforce Obama-Era Methane Rule

A federal judge reinstated a widely supported methane waste rule that President Trump's administration has repeatedly tried to stop.

Judge William Orrick of the U.S. District Court for Northern California ruled Thursday that Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) decision to suspend core provisions of the 2016 Methane and Waste Prevention Rule was "untethered to evidence."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Energy
On Jan. 24, 2017 President Donald Trump signed a memorandum to expedite the Keystone XL permitting process. Twitter | Donald Trump

Inside the Trump Admin's Fight to Keep the Keystone XL Approval Process Secret

By Steve Horn

At a Feb. 21 hearing, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the Trump administration must either fork over documents showing how the U.S. Department of State reversed an earlier decision and ultimately came to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, or else provide a substantial legal reason for continuing to withhold them. The federal government has an order to deliver the goods, one way or the other, by March 21.

Keep reading... Show less
Health

New Black Lung Epidemic Emerging in Coal Country

In a study released this month by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), federal researchers identified more than 400 cases of complicated black lung in three clinics in southwestern Virginia between 2013 and 2017—the largest cluster ever reported.

However, the actual number of cases is likely much, much higher as the government analysis relied on self-reporting. An ongoing investigation from NPR has counted nearly 2,000 cases diagnosed since 2010 across Appalachia.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Energy
Dennis Schroeder / NREL

The Facts About Trump’s Solar Tariffs – Who Gets Hurt? Who Gets Helped?

By John Rogers

The solar-related shoe we've been expecting has finally dropped: President Trump recently announced new taxes on imported solar cells and modules. There's plenty of downside to his decision, in terms of solar progress, momentum and jobs. But will it revive U.S. manufacturing?

Keep reading... Show less
Energy

Japan Confirms Oil From the Sanchi Is Washing Up On Its Beaches

By Andy Rowell

The Japanese Coast Guard has confirmed that the oil that is being washed up on islands in the south of the country is "highly likely" to have come from the stricken Iranian tanker, the Sanchi.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!