Energy insight: Methane emissions reduction – Part 1: Oil and gas

For information on methane emissions related to coal, see Energy Insight - Methane Emissions reduction – Part 2 – Coal 

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:
Ref: Global Warming Potentials United Nations Climate Change

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.  

Natural gas is a mixture of various gases, but the main component, typically over 93%, is methane.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that "Methane emissions from the oil and gas sector reached close to 80 Mt (or 2.4 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent) in 2017. This is equal to 6% of global energy sector GHG emissions. "

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:

Ref: The CCAC Oil & Gas Methane Partnership

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.

The Environmental Partnership comprises 45 US-based companies in the US oil and natural gas industry focusing on implementing best practice Leak Detection and Repair (LDAR) programmes, replacing high-bleed pneumatic controllers with low or zero-emitting devices, and minimizing emissions associated with the removal of liquids from wells with manual liquids unloading for gas production sources. Participating companies can share scientific data and best practices.

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  “GMI’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, Biogas, 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”.

Other organisations - IPIECA, The International Gas Union (IGU) and the International Association of Oil and Gas producers (IOGP) have become Associate Signatories to the principles.  

Many other organisations and companies have given their support. For example:
Russia’s Gazprom, 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.  

This generally means replacing, or retrofitting, high-bleed pneumatics devices for low-bleed ones. This was being advised and explained by the US EPA as far back as 2006. 

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.

An introduction to the subject can be found in David A Simpson’s 2014 paper on Pneumatic Controllers in Upstream Oil and Gas.

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 

For more initiatives around the world see the Global methane Challenge, Oil and gas Systems, Tools and Resources

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.

European Commission

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?

Nigeria

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.

The following week on 17 April 2019, the Nigerian Senate passed a bill prohibiting gas flaring “where 10,000 barrels or more of oil is produced per day, in any lease or license area”, and in any oil or gas operation commencing after the act was passed. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank have indicated that this could prove profitable.

Norway

Norway was the first country to support the World Bank initiative - Zero routine flaring. The Norwegian company, Equinor, has reduced their CO2 from flaring by 25% since 2007 – equivalent to more than 190,000 tonnes.

OPEC

All OPEC member countries are signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

USA

The US government plays a leading role in the Global Methane Initiative (see above) by providing technical expertise and leadership on its steering committee. In 2016 the US government funded over $93 million for international emission reduction activities (including agriculture as well as energy).

However in 2019, under the Trump administration, federal regulations introduced by President Obama to reduce leaking venting and flaring of methane from drilling activities have been reversed.

Further reading

Commentary: The environmental case for natural gas. Tim Gould, Head of the WEO Energy Supply Outlook Division, and Christophe McGlade, WEO senior analyst. International Energy Agency, 23 October 2017 

Global Methane Initiative “GMI’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, Biogas, and Coal Mines

Guiding Principles on Reducing Methane Emissions across the Natural Gas Value Chain.  Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) 2017. 

Greenhouse gas emissions: Understanding Global Warming Potentials United States Environmental Protection Agency.  

Industry initiatives – key factors for addressing methane emissions FSR Topic of the Month. Andris Piebalgs and Maria Olczak (FSR Gas Area) European University Institute  Published on 8th April 2019  

Options for reducing methane emissions from pneumatic devices in the natural gas industry.   United States Environmental Protection Agency, October 2006 

Pollutant Information: Methane National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory.  UK data only, from 1990 to 2016 - for agriculture and downstream energy.

Pneumatic Devices – Part 1 CLAiRIFI 

Pneumatic Controllers in Upstream Oil and Gas David A. Simpson, SPE, MuleShoe Engineering.  Oil and gas facilities, October 2014, pp83-96 (SPE 172505)

Reducing emissions from fossil-fired generation Indonesia, Malaysia and Viet Nam  OECD/IEA 2016

The US natural gas industry is leaking way more methane than previously thought. Here’s why that matters.  The conversation, July 2, 2018 11.42am BST

Energy Insight details


Please login to save this item