Sunday, August 14, 2016

Future of natural gas hinges on stanching methane leaks

Future of natural gas hinges on stanching methane leaks
New York Times, 11 July 2016, by Clifford Krauss

It probably won't come as news to readers here that methane leaks are a major issue with natural gas. This article discusses how that realization has dawned over the whole industry.  As we shift from coal toward natural gas and renewables, the methane emitted as a byproduct of natural gas production and distribution has increased as well; the oil and gas industry may now be the biggest source of methane in the U.S.  The short-term climate impact of this leaked methane is huge: equivalent to about 240 coal-fired plants, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.  As a result, the EPA is getting more serious (and more rigorous) about measuring methane leaks, the BLM is working on rules to reduce methane leaks on public lands, and federal regulators are getting involved.  Methane leaks call into question whether natural gas can play the role of a "bridge" while we wait for renewable energy production to spool up. Some companies are co-operating – reducing their emissions voluntarily, and trying to shape regulations in a way that works for them.  Others are stonewalling and protesting that higher regulatory costs will put them out of business and push the country back toward coal.  The viability of the natural gas industry, and the future of climate change, hangs in the balance.

My take: This is all true, although it would have been nice to see the NYT talking more about it back when the fracking boom was still young and regulation could have nipped the problem in the bud.  And it would be nice to see them talking about it a bit more bluntly even now.  For example, they fail to mention that the EPA has recently admitted that all of its methane leak estimates have been much too low in the past, and should all be revised upwards drastically; that is a major scandal that is strangely omitted from the article.  Similarly, they fail to mention the huge methane leak in California recently – the largest in U.S. history! – which was a major embarrassment for the industry that called into question, for many, whether we will ever be able to trust the industry to act responsibly.  The article also says that although an industry group aspires to hold leaks to 1% of total natural gas production, "some estimates put the current amount at nearly twice that level or more"; while that is literally true, since "twice that level or more" is open-ended, it fails to really convey two uncomfortable facts.  One, our data collection on methane leakage has been so abysmally bad that nobody really has any precise idea how much is leaked, and credible estimates vary by nearly an order of magnitude; and two, some credible estimates put the leakage rate much higher than "nearly" 2%, with the IPCC, I believe, stating a median consensus of 2-3% (but again, nobody really has good enough data to know).  All in all, then, this article strikes me as a softball.  I personally think methane leakage is a manageable problem with better regulation (although I'm opposed to natural gas as a bridge fuel for other reasons); but we won't get that better regulation if we fail to take the issue seriously and fully acknowledge how badly we've handled it thus far.

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