Fugitive Methane Becomes Target For Climate-Changing Proponents

May 2014, Vol. 241, No. 5

Carol Freedenthal, Contributing Editor

Methane, the major ingredient of natural gas (98% plus), is getting more heat than just from the sun’s radiation! Considered a greenhouse gas (GHG) because of its ability to absorb heat and transfer it to affect the earth’s climate, methane is getting federal and state government as well as civic attention.

In March, the White House released an interagency Methane Strategy to lower emission of this believed potent greenhouse gas as part of the President’s overall Climate Action Plan which was announced a year ago.

Three states, Colorado, Wyoming, and Ohio (in that order) have already enacted new legislation to curb methane emissions. The new intensity in this area comes from two sources: the administration’s desire to take more action on climate control and the substantially increased U.S. oil and gas production capability and its potential to generate more leaks and fugitive emissions.

Oil and natural gas facilities, which are the largest industrial producers of methane in the U.S., are a big part of the strategy for reduced emissions. Natural gas and oil systems are estimated to provide 30% of methane emissions. Other sources of methane include enteric fermentation (23%), landfills (17%), coal mining (11%) and others (7%). Combining the fossil fuels makes it responsible for 41% of methane availability.

The new emphasis on climate control (no longer called “earth warming” because that in itself has become questionable!) is coming from different sources. The United Nations last month released a report declaring dire consequences from earth warming; the administration wants to increase the government’s role and many civic and society groups are concerned.

The only problem is that the dire consequences predicted years ago by the advocates of climate change from their models have not happened. Nor do they seem to appear imminent. The polar ice caps are intact and are possibly increasing. Ocean levels are not rising with the exception of a storm or two. The climate is not getting hotter; the 2014 U.S. winter from October-March was the coldest in over a century. Even polar bears are doing well and propagating!

There is not enough space here or information known to fully evaluate if there is really a true climate change, its effect and whether human actions can be blamed for whatever is happening. Human activity, no matter how big you want to make it seem, is still small when compared to the earth’s and solar system’s actions.

New information is coming out on how solar activity – storms, sun spots, etc. – play a big role in the earth’s climate and environment. Today, it is politically correct to assume changes are occurring and action to moderate the causes is correct. Under the current assumption that GHG contribute to warming, anything to reduce these gases released to the atmosphere is a desired benefit. More data and experience will reveal how beneficial and cost-effective this really is. Those scientific non-believers of climate change will meet in Las Vegas in July.

Until now, the gas getting the major attention as a GHG is carbon dioxide, mainly produced when fossil fuels are burned for transportation, electric generation, heating or other uses. Carbon dioxide is considered the leading GHG even though it has known benefits to the environment. Why now so much interest in methane?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), methane (CH4) is, after carbon dioxide, the second-largest volume of GHG emitted from human activities in the US. Roughly 60% of the gas produced comes from human activity in industry, agriculture and waste management activities.

On the industrial side, the biggest source of emissions in the U.S. is from natural gas and petroleum systems. Small amounts are also generated in transportation of coal. Methane is the primary component of natural gas. Fugitive methane gets into the atmosphere during production, processing, storage, transportation and distribution of natural gas, the second -largest source of fuel consumed in the U.S. Since natural gas is usually found in connection with petroleum oils, the production, movement and use of oil adds to potential methane pollution.

Methane is produced in agriculture as livestock such as sheep, cattle, etc. give off large amounts of methane into the atmosphere in their normal digestive systems. Additionally, the handling of animal wastes can produce large amounts of the gas. Methane is generated in landfills as waste decomposes. It is also generated in the treatment of waste waters from various sources. All of these are considered to be for or to benefit human action and the reason the generated methane is attributed to human action!

Besides human-induced activities generating methane, there are several natural sources. In addition to the natural gas produced from the ground for fuel, methane mainly comes from wetlands when organic matter decomposes with insufficient oxygen. Smaller amounts come from termites, oceans, sediments, volcanoes, and wildfires.

Other than the volume of methane produced in the country, it might be more important to consider its potency as a GHG. According to a University of Texas report, “ounce for ounce, methane is at least 84 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over the first two decades after its release.” The half life in the atmosphere for methane is much shorter than for carbon dioxide but is still long enough to have a noticeable effect.

The actions taken by the three states to put greater enforcement on oil and gas operations are seen as the bellwether for other oil and natural gas-producing areas. The first state to start looking at fugitive emissions was Wyoming last fall, Wyoming adopted new rules for its oil and gas operators as production activity had increased from shale development, resulting in higher air pollution.

Under the new Wyoming rules, operators will regularly scan their wells for fugitive emissions on a quarterly basis and repair (LDAR) as needed. They will use infrared cameras and other hydrocarbon detection equipment. Inspection will be for all hydrocarbon emissions and not just limited or centered on methane.

Colorado made the next move in February, passing the first laws in the nation to specifically target methane rather than going after the broad spectrum of volatile organic compounds (VOC) leaking or fugitively coming from production sites.

The Colorado rules were developed by oil and gas operators, state agencies and other interested parties working together. They are tough and will set the standard for other areas to regulate production, processing and use of natural gas and other hydrocarbon fuels. The new rules are very strong, comprehensive and address both old and new production sites statewide.

A major objective is establishing a schedule of inspections for leaks depending on well size and operations. Those well sites with the greatest potential of leaks will be scanned monthly. The middle ground – most likely the majority of well sites – will be scanned quarterly. Annual inspection requirements will apply to the smallest wells.

Last month Ohio announced a policy requiring operators to scan for leaks and repair them on a quarterly basis for new unconventional oil and gas wells. Ohio is getting ready to develop its Utica Shale prospects.

The new rules target fugitive emissions from the oil and gas operations and products usage. This means going after leaking valves, connectors and other equipment in the production, delivery and usage of natural gas and oil products. According to the University of Texas study, the new rules in place already are expected to reduce methane leaks by about 65,000 tons per year.

What the new rules do not have is increased in-person drilling well site inspections. Fines for operators who violate the new regulations also need review. As the rules take effect and more is known, more attention will be paid to these deficiencies.

The new regulations for product containment contain an economic benefit for operators. No question that making more product available for sales means more profit! With natural gas in the $4.50-5/MMBtu range at the wellhead, preventing leaks and other losses mean dollars of profit to the operator!