Why is methane a problem for the climate?
Methane (CH4) is the third most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere (after water vapour and carbon dioxide (CO2)). Any methane emitted today lasts only about 10 years in the atmosphere, (CO2 can last thousands of years) but has a Global Warming Potential (GWP), according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, of 28-36 over 100 years
GWP is the “measure of how much energy the emissions of 1 ton of a gas will absorb over a given period of time, relative to the emissions of 1 ton of CO2.” The higher the GWP, the more energy is absorbed, the less energy escapes into space, and thus the more the earth is warmed.
The UNFCCC (United Nations Climate Change) reports similar figures:
An added danger is that “oxidation of methane is responsible for the majority of the ozone formation
in the troposphere”, and ozone (O3) also has global warming potential.
Where does the methane in the atmosphere come from?
In 2012, the latest year for which global figures are available, human activity caused 60% of the estimated 570 million tonnes (Mt) of global methane emissions. Although agriculture accounts for the biggest share of anthropogenic sources (about 25%), the energy industry – coal, gas and oil, and biofuels – account for almost the same amount.
Doesn’t burning gas get rid of the methane?
Yes – but burning methane releases carbon dioxide, water and energy, and although this means less methane, the carbon dioxide is still a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.
What are energy companies doing to reduce their methane emissions?
Oil and Gas initiatives
Various initiatives aimed at reducing methane emissions have already been started by some oil and gas companies.
The Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) Oil & Gas Methane Partnership (OGMP)
started in 2015 but launched at the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit in New York in September 2014, is a voluntary initiative to help reduce methane emissions in the oil and gas sector. It has, as of April 2019, ten partner companies including BP, Shell and Total. Since launch, each member company’s activities has been reported annually
. OGMP have identified nine major sources of methane emissions from upstream oil and gas operations:
The Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI)
, also started in 2014 by thirteen oil companies, is a voluntary CEO-led initiative taking practical actions on climate change. They have set a target
to greatly reduce their “collective methane emissions by more than one-third – approximately 600,000 tonnes of methane annually, by the end of 2025.” This across the entire gas value chain from upstream production, to transport and distribution to final customers. They also support the aim of zero gas flaring by 2030.
Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership (GGFR)
led by the World Bank, is “a public-private initiative comprising international and national oil companies, national and regional governments, and international institutions. GGFR works to increase use of natural gas associated with oil production by helping remove technical and regulatory barriers to flaring reduction, conducting research, disseminating best practices, and developing country-specific gas flaring reduction programs.” The World Bank aims to monetize the recovered gas, especially in remote locations.
Global Methane Initiative
’s 45 Partner Countries and more than 500 Project Network members exchange information and technical resources to advance methane mitigation in three key sectors: Oil and Gas
, and Coal Mines
”. The aim is to develop strategies and markets and remove barriers, both technical and non-technical, to methane mitigation projects. An interactive map showing GMI’s targeted project sites
is on the GMI website.
Methane Detectors’ Challenge
, launched in 2014 – “is a ground-breaking partnership between EDF [Environmental Defense Fund
], oil and gas companies, U.S.-based technology developers, and other experts, that aims to enable oil and gas companies to detect and fix methane leaks in real time
”. The challenge is designed to get the next generation of detection technology to market more quickly so that methane leaks can be detected and fixed in days rather than months. Active partners include PG&E (which has installed innovative methane detection technology), Statoil, and Shell; both of the latter two have launched pilots of solar-powered methane leak detection technology.
Methane guiding principles -
In 2017, eight oil companies signed up to “Reducing methane emissions across the natural gas value chain: guiding principles” (now usually referred to as the Methane guiding principles
). These principles are: “To continually reduce methane emissions; advance strong performance across gas value chains; improve accuracy of methane emissions data; advocate sound policies and regulations on methane emissions; and increase transparency.” These guidelines are complementary to, and reinforce, other initiatives such as OGMP, and the OGCI.
The Energy Institute
became a Supporting Signatory
in February 2019 and is determining “what this commitment means in practice and how it will be incorporated in our work, especially in our technical activities. A key way forward will be raising awareness in light of the findings from our Future of gas survey last year revealing that more than 80% of global oil and gas professionals were unaware of the extent of the technical and commercial possibilities for tackling the problem”.
Many other organisations and companies have given their support. For example:
whose level of methane emissions across its natural gas value chain is independently estimated to be 5-7% (or at least 3 times the global average) has also signed the Guiding Principles
What have the oil and gas companies put into practice?
OGCI’s annual report 2018
tells us that there are four main methods to reduce methane emissions which their member companies will adopt:
1. Leak detection and repair (LDAR) – the sooner a leak from a pipeline, other facility or equipment is spotted and mended the less methane will enter the atmosphere. Techniques for improving leak detection include:
- expanding the coverage and increasing the frequency of LDAR campaigns
- using optical gas imaging with infrared cameras; and optical laser spectroscopy to accelerate LDAR.
- mounting sensors on drones to assess leaks from specific equipment as well as entire facilities.
- Detecting methane emissions from space – this has been done by NASA who detected emissions from a storage facility. There are commercial companies, such as GHG Sat offering global greenhouse gas emissions monitoring from satellites orbiting the Earth.
2. Replace or upgrade devices where methane emissions are known to occur.
These devices are used to control fluid levels (e.g. on separators, tanks and treaters); pressure; temperature; differential pressure, position; and safety shutdown valves. “In upstream oil and gas operations, the most common end devices are actuated valves
that allow flow, stop flow, or throttle flow”.
Pneumatic devices send a gas-pressure signal to the end-device, and this is commonly achieved by using available natural gas (although it can be compressed air or bottled compressed gas). Some of the control actions require the gas to be vented – hence the need for changing high bleed-devices for low-bleed ones.
3. Reduce operational venting in new and existing assets by collecting gas for reutilization.
4. Eliminate routine flaring by 2030 by collecting gas for reutilization, and also implement high efficiency flares when flaring is necessary for safety reasons.”
The collected gas has been variously used around the world:
- to aid recovery of low-pressure associated gas, or reinjected into natural gas reservoirs
- to generate local electricity
- to provide drilling power to rigs and auxiliary generators
- for petrochemicals
Investments in methane emissions reduction
The OGCI companies are investing US$20 million
, aimed at achieving zero methane emissions, in startup companies developing methane emissions reduction technologies such as:
• Clarke Valve
– has developed a unique control valve that is low-cost and virtually eliminates fugitive methane emissions
• Kairos Aerospace
– Using aerial surveys to providing actionable data on major sources of methane emissions
What else is encouraging methane mitigation?
UN Climate Change (UNFCCC secretariat)
The Paris Agreement
’s central aim is to "strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Additionally, the agreement aims to strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change.”
Reducing methane emissions is one of these efforts. By May 2019, 185 countries had ratified the agreement.
International Energy Agency
In July 2019 the IEA announced it has launched a new Methane tracker so that "Oil and gas producers that can demonstrate that they are taking strong action to reduce methane emissions can credibly argue that their resources should be preferred over higher-emission options." The tracker is a database with facts and figures on methane from oil and gas; a geographical breakdown, and links to initiatives for mitigating methane emissions.
The Industrial Emissions Directive was adopted in November 2010 and indicates that harmful industrial emissions across the EU must be reduced, for instance by the application of Best Available Techniques (BAT).
Various guidance documents relating to oil and gas are available:
European Union and the G8
With their low-carbon economy Roadmap 2050
the EU and G8 aim to reduce greenhouse gases by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.
What about non-European countries?
On 11 April 2019, the Minister of state for petroleum resources Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu announced that, by 3rd quarter 2019, Nigeria will award contracts for gas which is presently flared
. The gas could be used in powerplants, industry or exported. With this, Nigeria’s power generation capacity should rise from 5,000 MW to 7,000MW.
Methane tracker: reducing methane emissions form oil and gas operations. IEA. Launched July 2019