Posted December 9, 2014
New research by the University of Texas shows what other studies have shown: methane emissions from natural gas production are lower than previously estimated. The UT study found that emissions represent just 0.38 percent of production – about 10 percent lower than a 2013 study by the same research team.
The UT study checked two sources of methane emissions in natural gas production: processes to clear wells of accumulated liquids to increase production, called liquid unloadings; and pneumatic controller devices that open and close valves.
The study found that just 19 percent of pneumatic devices accounted for 95 percent of emissions from that equipment, and that just 20 percent of wells with unloading emissions that vent to the atmosphere accounted for 65 percent to 85 percent of those emissions. David Allen, the study’s principal investigator:
“To put this in perspective, over the past several decades, 10 percent of the cars on the road have been responsible for the majority of automotive exhaust pollution. Similarly, a small group of sources within these two categories are responsible for the vast majority of pneumatic and unloading emissions at natural gas production sites.”
The results suggest that technologies and practices already in use by industry – voluntary efforts and those to comply with federal green completions rules that become standard in January – are working to reduce methane leaks. Howard Feldman, API director of scientific and regulatory affairs:
“Study after study shows that industry-led efforts to reduce emissions through investments in new technologies and equipment are paying off. This latest study shows that methane emissions are a fraction of estimates from just a few years ago. The industry will continue to make substantial progress to reduce emissions voluntarily and in compliance with EPA regulations that will be fully implemented by January.”
The UT findings fit with EPA calculations that methane emissions from hydraulically fractured natural gas wells have fallen 73 percent since 2011, as well as another assessment showing reduced methane emissions from a number of the United States’ top shale plays – illustrated in this shale play-by-shale play infographic from Energy In Depth:
And in the chart below, based on U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data, showing declining methane emissions at the same time natural gas production is soaring:
The underscored point here is that the United States can have a natural gas revolution and reduce methane emissions, too. We can see job creation, economic growth and better air through increased use of clean-burning natural gas. That’s industry’s goal. Shell’s Greg Guidry, executive vice president for unconventionals Americas, at an event this week hosted by CSIS:
“The long-term attractiveness of natural gas is a key part of the overall energy equation, globally but also here in the U.S. And it requires continuous improvement in emissions to continue to be attractive. Shell is already voluntarily reducing methane emissions.”
Feldman, speaking at a briefing for reporters last week, said industry also is motivated to reduce methane emissions because it makes good sense:
“Methane is the product we bring to market. We sell methane – that is natural gas. That’s what we want to sell. … We don’t need regulation to tell us to do that because we are incentivized to do that. It’s not a byproduct or something. It is the product we’re selling. … We’re developing these technologies because we want to more and more capture natural gas.”
Yet, despite the studies and data, some still believe additional federal methane regulation is needed, with EPA and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management formulating them now. Shell’s Guidry said the impacts on the shale energy revolution could be significant:
“If the administration piles one regulation after another on America’s shale industry, I’m concerned that affordable onshore production of oil and gas may be significantly challenged and in some plays no longer possible. … (W)e may unintentionally impact America’s energy security and economy at a time when we are on the road to energy independence.”
One more chart, as EIA reports that America’s total natural gas proved reserves reached a record 354 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) in 2013. Below (using more EIA numbers) we see how, since 2008, there’s been accelerated growth of proved natural gas reserves – volumes that geological and engineering data demonstrate can be recovered in future years under existing economic and operating conditions:
The trajectory of the line above is basically the arc of the shale revolution – which doesn’t happen without advanced hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Safe, responsible fracking and shale have saved America from having to import natural gas to a new reality of plenty in which the U.S. can supply domestic needs and could be a major natural gas exporter. With the right policies – including a smart approach to regulation. API President and CEO Jack Gerard, talking to reporters last week:
“It’s ironic that here we have an American energy renaissance taking place that is unprecedented in the history of our nation. And yet we continue to see repeated efforts to regulate the very activity that’s underlying a lot of the job growth that we see in the country today. … We have strongly encouraged the administration to take a deep breath and to look comprehensively at the chilling effect they’re sending to the marketplace with repeated regulatory activities that discourage the very activity that’s creating these new well-paying jobs.”
Gerard said industry currently operates under a very robust regulatory regime that’s primarily based at the state level, where officials with an understanding of the local geology and other physical features have crafted rules that work where they are. And it’s working. The studies show it. Gerard:
“You look at issues like methane, even though the number of wells under production is up considerably, our methane emissions are down. And yet, here we go again, talking about a new regulatory regime on something that demonstrates the trend line is already very positive. So we question strongly why we continue to throw hurdles in front of one of the few bright spots in our domestic economy.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.