By Roberta Attanasio, IEAM Blog Editor
“By emitting just a little bit of methane, mankind is greatly accelerating the rate of climatic change” – Steven Hamburg, Chief Scientist, Environmental Defense Fund
Methane, the primary ingredient of natural gas, has been receiving more bad press than usual lately—courtesy of the massive natural gas leak that erupted on Oct. 23, 2015, at the Aliso Canyon underground storage facility near Los Angeles. California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, and thousands of families were evacuated. After unsuccessful initial attempts to plug the leak, Southern California Gas Company was finally able to build a relief well to capture the leaking gas. On February 18, 2016, nearly four months later, officials announced the leak had been permanently sealed.
Similar to carbon dioxide, methane absorbs the sun’s heat, warming the atmosphere and causing climate change. There is a major difference between the two, though. Carbon dioxide is responsible for most of the warming, as we produce larger amounts of it than any other greenhouse gas. However, methane traps much more heat than carbon dioxide and, in the first two decades after its release, is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
In an article published on February 25 in the journal Science, scientists reported that the massive Aliso Canyon methane release is the second largest of its kind recorded in the U.S. It is surpassed only by the natural gas leaked after the collapse of an underground storage facility in Moss Bluff, TX, in 2004. However, the scientists point out that the Aliso Canyon release is expected to have a larger climate impact when compared with the Moss Bluff release, which caused an explosion and subsequent fire that combusted most of the leaked methane and immediately formed carbon dioxide.
To Stephen Conley, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Davis, President of Scientific Aviation, and co-author of the Science article, the extent of the Aliso Canyon leak has been clear since the first time he flew through the plume of natural gas, as reported by the Smithsonian. “Conley has flown his specialized research plane over the sites of many oil and gas leaks in the past. In normal, leak-free air, he usually detects about 2 parts per million (ppm) of methane. Over a leak, that might go up to 4 or 5 ppm. But the air over California in November had levels of 50 ppm a mile from the leak site.” Not surprisingly, co-author Thomas Ryerson, a research chemist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said: “On the scale of the control efforts that have been put in place to minimize greenhouse gas emissions, it rolls that back years.”
Indeed, the scientists estimated that the mega-leak released 97,100 metric tonnes of methane into the atmosphere over 112 days. Fortunately, the leak is also drawing increased attention to the broader problem of “fugitive” emissions from compressed natural gas fueling stations, landfills, geological seeps, and cattle. In addition, extensive research efforts by the Environmental Defense Fund show that methane is leaking at every stage of the oil and gas supply chain.
On February 24, 2016, Gina McCarthy, the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told delegates attending the 35th IHS CERAWeek Energy Conference, the annual gathering of global oil executives, “Methane emissions from existing sources in the oil and gas sector are substantially higher than we previously understood.” She added: “The data confirm that we can and must do more on methane. By tackling methane emissions, we can unlock an amazing opportunity to better protect our environment for the future.”
Why are these leaks happening? According to the Environmental Defense Fund, “It’s a combination of oil and gas companies failing to monitor and maintain aging infrastructure and a lack of oversight of the oil and gas industry. For too long, we have gone without federal and state standards that require sufficient leak and safety inspections for oil and gas facilities, and industry has shown it can’t be trusted to fix the problem on its own.”
Natural gas is touted as an efficient source of energy because its combustion produces more energy per carbon dioxide molecule formed than coal or oil. However, the natural gas leaks that occur from the point of extraction to the point of consumption offset the climate benefits.
In August 2015, the Obama administration proposed the first federal regulations requiring the nation’s oil and gas industry to cut emissions of methane as part of an expanding and increasingly aggressive effort to control climate change. The goal is to reduce methane emissions 40 percent to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025. As usual, industry and state leaders are lining up to oppose these regulations. However, at the IHS CERAWeek 2016 conference, McCarthy said: “If anyone thinks we’re done on climate, think again, guys.”
The new rules are expected to transform the nation’s energy sector—that is, if they withstand legal challenges. However, more action is needed: these rules don’t go far enough, as they only address pollution from oil and gas facilities that will be built in the future, not the ones that already exist and are polluting the air as we speak.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Defense Fund and Google Earth Outreach have been wiring cars with methane sensors and testing them out in Boston, MA; Burlington, VT; Chicago, IL; Indianapolis, IN; Los Angeles, CA: Staten Island, NY; and Syracuse, NY. The goal is to find and assess leaks under streets and sidewalks, thus creating maps of natural gas leaks. The maps generated so far (there will be more to come) underscore the persistent and widespread challenge of leaks and show the positive impact of resources dedicated by utilities and regulators to fix the problem. The information gained through this collaborative venture is expected to help gas companies prioritize their efforts to repair and upgrade pipelines, while at the same time providing a powerful advocacy tool to accelerate the process. Hopefully, this program will be expanded to include locations around the innumerable number of fracking sites across the country, and not just urban areas.