Researching natural gas leaks is important to regulation

This blog was written by John D. Wilson, former Deputy Director for Regulatory Policy at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | April 10, 2015 | Energy Policy, Fossil Gas

Once again, Environmental Defense Fund’s Methane Research project is in the news – with concerns about whether EDF is transforming a highly polluting industry, or whether that industry is using EDF to enable pollution to be continued. SACE is deeply concerned about methane emissions, which occur throughout the process of drilling, transporting and using natural gas. Yet once it reaches a power plant or industrial facility, its use is undeniably cleaner than most other fossil fuels, especially coal.

EDF’s Methane Research project funds research to better understand methane leakage. As InsideClimate News reports,

EDF’s methane initiative parallels other studies at government agencies and universities, but it remains the most comprehensive in scope, said NASA scientist Tom Ryerson, a methane researcher unaffiliated with EDF’s work. “Their commitment to doing that is impressive,” he said.

In my opinion, EDF has struck a responsible balance between engaging industry without being captured, and that’s to the credit of EDF, its industry partners, and the funders that support EDF.

The reality is that hydrofracking – for oil, natural gas, or both – is continuing here and abroad. Many of our allies in the environmental movement are opposing the expansion of natural gas drilling, and there are definitely many natural gas “plays” in which fracking is a dangerous activity that should be prohibited to protect public health. And we have recently joined with Union of Concerned Scientists to point out the risks of overemphasizing the growing tendency of the utility industry to not just use natural gas to ensure reliability, but for natural gas to replace coal as the primary fuel used to generate electricity.

Because fracking is not proceeding much or at all in the Southeast, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy has not had to get involved in fights to ensure that the natural gas industry is properly regulated. We know it isn’t in many locations, and support our allies’ efforts to ensure that dangerous practices are not pursued. But the only way to properly regulate an industry is to study it – something EDF is leading the charge on.

Methane Leakage: Economically Foolish and Globally Destructive

EDF commissioned ICF to study technologies to reduce methane leakage. Among ICF’s conclusions, “Industry could cut methane emissions by 40% below projected 2018 levels at an average annual cost of less than one cent on average per thousand cubic feet of produced natural gas by adopting available emissions-control technologies and operating practices. This would require a capital investment of $2.2 billion, which Oil & Gas Journal data shows to be less than 1% of annual industry capital expenditure.”

Everyone should be concerned about methane leakage because of its outsized impact on global warming. Estimates for methane leakage rates tend to range from 1.9% up to 7.9%. Methane has a greater near-term (20 year) impact as a greenhouse gas than it does when measured by longer-term (100 year) greenhouse gas metrics. Methane emissions can have as high as 105 times the impact as the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions when measured over 20 years.

Even with lower production and stronger regulation, thanks to EPA scrutiny and EDF’s research initiatives, we know that methane emissions are rising and what trends are driving the change. As EDF’s Mark Brownstein points out, “We have the low cost technology at our disposal right now to fix this problem. Cutting emissions in half would save our nation’s energy economy nearly $1 billion a year in wasted product, and cut the 20-year climate pollution equivalent of 90 coal-fired power plants.”

A related concern is that if methane leaks are allowed to continue, then the eventual costs of addressing global warming are pushed off to future, more expensive actions. We need the natural gas industry to invest today in controlling methane emissions so that tomorrow’s energy customers aren’t hit with even higher, and unnecessary, costs to bring down emissions and protect our planet. It’s not costly – again, as Brownstein notes, “a study by ICF International recently estimated that companies could cut methane emissions by 40 percent or more for about one third of one percent of the price of the gas they’re selling.”

Cheaper, Cleaner Alternatives – and Strong, Effective Regulations

Our experience is that renewable energy (particularly solar and wind) – if fairly considered by utilities – will drive down the use of both natural gas and coal in the electric sector. This will be particularly true if the United States moves forward with carbon rules across all sectors of the energy economy. And those carbon rules should include methane leaked from natural gas operations and transport.

We have seen some very constructive results from EDF’s initiative, such as the findings that help indicate which regulations should be extended across the industry. As the InsideClimate News article notes, EDF Executive Director Fred Krupp cited “the production processes that emitted less methane” as the very facilities that are “subject to new EPA rules.” Engaging industry in research that supports effective pollution regulation is a very effective method of defusing industry-led opposition to those regulations when they are proposed and (hopefully) adopted.

There are some legitimate concerns about EDF’s research program discussed in the article, but EDF is the one that is leading in this work and has to make the tough calls. I’ve personally worked with two of the EDF project leaders, Ramon Alvarez and Mark Brownstein, and know them to both be passionate in the pursuit of environmental protection but also smart about how to engage with industry. So, until someone shows a better way forward that’s both practical and likely to achieve at least some of the protection our planet so desperately needs, I’m with EDF on this one!

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