Editor’s Notebook: The Bovine Threat

May 2014, Vol. 241, No. 5

Well, no one ever said it was going to be easy trying to persuade the public that natural gas is indeed the fuel of choice for years to come because of its low cost, reliability, abundance and environmental benefits.

A few years ago everyone including the environmental lobbies, loved natural gas as a reasonable alternative to coal, oil and nuclear. Gas was the “bridge” fuel until renewables begin to pay off.

Then the shale revolution erupted and we learned that we’ll have more natural gas than we know what to do with. Now natural gas is not so great, the environmental lobbyists insist. With climate change on the minds of many, so what if natural gas emits 50% less carbon dioxide than coal and 30% less than oil?

The problem is that methane, the primary component of natural gas, is also a pollutant. The amounts are miniscule, but even a little bit goes a long way since methane is 23 times more powerful than CO-2. The gas industry along with research institutes and universities are working on the problem 24/7. With that much brain power, there WILL be a solution.

Last year, the EPA Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions inventory said estimates of leaks from the nationwide gas system were revised downward 33% to 143.6 metric tons (MMTe) in the latest calculations from 215.4 MMTe in 2010. (See Richard Nemec’s article in this issue for more information.) “Methane released from natural gas systems, which include field production, processing, transmission pipelines/storage, and distribution, accounted for 2.2% of all U.S. GHG emissions in 2011,” according to an American Gas Association (AGA) analysis of the data.

In March, an analysis sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund and prepared by ICF International said methane emissions from U.S. oil/gas onshore operations can be economically cut up to 40% of projected future levels in 2018 for less than a penny/Mcf of gas produced. However, there are some studies that insist estimates of methane emissions are too low.

On April 28 the AGA offered further analysis of the EPA GHG report:

  • Methane emissions from the natural gas value chain, including field production, processing, transmissions and storage, and distribution, result in an effective 1.3% emissions rate of produced natural gas. 
  • Gas utility distribution systems methane emissions amount to an emissions rate of 0.24% of produced natural gas in 2012.
  • Natural gas system methane emissions were 130 MMTe in 2012, a decline of 17% from 1990 levels and 15% below 2005.
  • Distribution system methane emissions were 26 MMTe in 2012 and have shrunk 22% between 1990-2012 even as the industry added 600,000 miles of total pipe (service and main lines) to serve 17.5 million more customers, an increase of 32% in both cases.
  • Nearly 90% of the historical drop in methane emissions in distribution systems since 1990 is a direct result of pipeline upgrades to modern plastic and protected steel.

All of this is well and good, but I still have a concern that I mentioned to Janet as we drove to the API Pipeline Conference in San Antonio last month.

I said livestock waste and naturally occurring sources represent 23% of U.S. methane emissions as compared to 30% for oil and gas. Later, as I cut into my succulent ribeye, my better half reported on some research she found pertaining to our friend, the cow.

“Jeff, did you know that continuous farting for six years and nine months would create energy equal to that of an atomic bomb?” Of course the article does not suggest that anyone attempt this experiment.

Lest you think I’m joking, recall the story Jan. 28 about a barn exploding in Germany after a static electric charge ignited a cloud of methane gas inside the barn. Officials said the burping and farting from the 90 cows contained large amounts of the colorless and supposedly odorless gas. Cows emit up to 500 liters of methane a day; multiply that by 90 cows and you have a roof-raising problem.

As we know, methane is derived from natural and human processes. One such human activity is raising cattle, which contribute to about 60% of global methane emissions. I read that Argentina’s National Institute for Farming Technology recently developed a method to convert the methane in a cow’s stomach to liquid fuel before it’s emitted into the air, enough per cow per day to drive a car more than a half mile.

I’ve urged those protesting fracking and Keystone to find a better cause. How about it, Jane Kleeb–Isn’t cow farting a bigger threat to rural Nebraskans than a safely built pipeline?