What to do about leaky methane

The EPA and the oil and gas industry are contemplating high-tech sensors to spot and eliminate leaks of this planet-warming gas.

A scientist analyzes methane levels in Alaska. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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I didn’t expect to have this much fun reading about an EPA regulation in process. 

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But the effort afoot to get a handle on methane leakage in the oil and gas industry combines huge stakes for the climate with the push and pull of government straining to keep up with technology.

Methane, the key component of natural gas, delivers 80 times more warming impact in the short term than carbon dioxide if the methane escapes into the atmosphere without being burned. That leakage turns out to be far more extensive than previously thought, as detected by a new suite of high-tech aerial sensing techniques.

Now the EPA, the oil industry and climate advocates are hashing out whether new methane rules should make use of these newer aircraft and satellite detection methods. Here’s what lies ahead, as reported by Jeff St. John:

In the next few weeks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is set to release draft rules that will dramatically expand the agency’s role in regulating methane emissions across the oil and gas industry. One big question for industry insiders and climate activists is whether the EPA will build the latest leak-detection technologies into these rules. Will the agency drive the industry to embrace the technologies’ full capabilities? And if it does, how can it avoid costly or confusing requirements that could lead to legal challenges?

[…] Basing regulations on novel technologies poses risks, however. Regulations must undergo stringent technical vetting, and they’re vulnerable to legal challenges.

But the methane-detection methods now being used fail to catch anywhere from one-third to one-half of the industry’s total methane emissions, according to the latest data. That means any rules that don’t integrate these new technologies may well miss a golden opportunity to address what scientists say is one of the most effective ways to combat climate change.

The status-quo detection methods seem woefully inadequate compared to the scope of the problem.

  • The EPA’s current rules require periodic inspections by technicians on the ground searching for leaks using optical imaging devices.
  • Data from these surveys is extrapolated across a company’s assets to estimate its total emissions.
  • In other words, this approach inevitably misses a lot of emissions — and it doesn’t even begin to attempt to measure them. 

But where you might expect reluctance or outright hostility from the fossil fuel companies, some are ready to rock with these more effective detection methods. That’s because methane is the product they sell, and plugging leaks means more of it gets to market.

Texas-based oil and gas developer Triple Crown Resources told the EPA that airplane-based leak detection didn’t just pay for itself — it actually made money.

Data from aerial surveys allowed Triple Crown to alter its operations to reduce emissions by 90 percent over the course of just eight months, he said. The surveys cost about $25,000 and resulted in a profit of about $400,000 from natural gas the company was able to prevent from leaking.

We were surprised by the number of leaks we found…and how easy the leaks were to repair,” said Forrest Johnson, an engineer at the company. It turned our environmental stewardship team from being a government-mandated team…to being a profit center for our company.”

Say what you will about oil companies, but if they see methane leak reduction as a moneymaker, that’s very good for limiting near-term warming. 

Here’s the but: Not all companies stand to gain from this. 

  • You need to have the ability and infrastructure to store and later sell the saved gas. 
  • Oil operations that produce methane as an unwanted byproduct don’t have much incentive to participate.

So there will be some areas where a government push will be necessary to quell the leaks. Then the question becomes how strict the regulations should be. 

  • One strategy Jeff heard about is focusing on the big leaks first, rather than forcing action on the much-smaller leaks that offer diminishing returns. 
  • Democrats in Congress proposed a more forceful approach: fining oil and gas companies for methane emissions. But that would depend on a system of comprehensive methane leak measurement that currently doesn’t exist. 

In the annals of government catching up to technology, this area seems more promising than, say, octogenarian senators figuring out how the Facebook” works. But check back in a few weeks to see what actually ends up in the rule.

Julian Spector is an editor at Canary Media and reports on the rise of clean energy. He worked at Greentech Media for nearly five years, and before that he reported for CityLab at The Atlantic.