• Nick Bailey

Cutting 40% of Methane Emissions at Zero Cost

Earlier in the year, I wrote about the IEA Methane Tracker study from 2017, showing how fugitive methane emissions from the energy sector (by fugitive, we mean ‘leaks’) are a particularly harmful greenhouse gas problem, since one ton of methane is equivalent to 30 tons of CO2 over a 100-year period.

The IEA have recently published their 2020 update to the Methane Tracker study – I’ve included a link below – and it is well worth reading.

The Sustainable Development Scenario for 2018-2030 is hoping to achieve nearly 45% reduction in the emissions intensity from oil and gas operations over the period.

The IEA cite three reasons for the poor uptake of mitigation measures for methane reduction: a lack of complete information about the problem, inadequate infrastructure to match abated gas to productive uses and misaligned investment incentives.

Perhaps the biggest problem found by all agencies studying the problem of assessing the impact of energy sector fugitive methane emissions is that no-one has the answers to many of the questions we are all asking. For example, until recently it was assumed that natural methane sources emitted around 50Mt per year. A recent paper in the journal Nature suggests this may, in reality, be as low as 1Mt per year, meaning that aggregate methane emissions from fossil fuel production and consumption are much higher (at 175Mt per year) than previously thought.

If abatement options were put in place, the IEA estimates that 75% of these emissions could be avoided. Methane is a valuable product and a third of this 75% figure could, the IEA argues, be achieved at zero cost.

The least expensive way of reducing fugitive emissions, according to the report, is leak detection and repair programs – upstream and downstream.

In the cost curve shown above, a variety of LDAR (leak detection and repair) programs are shown. Cost of inspection differs for upstream and downstream operations, as does the effectiveness of these inspection regimes. As the report points out, the difficulty in measuring methane emissions from leaks poses a challenge. Strong emissions quantification is required.

As I mentioned in my last post, covering the 2017 report, a large proportion of these fugitive methane emissions could be cut at zero cost and in many cases, this lost product could be sold at profit. It seems strange that more is not being done to resolve this situation.

One reason for the issue remaining unresolved is that asset owners are unaware of some of the newer technologies developed to assist in the quantification of these emissions. Traditionally, it has been almost impossible to measure the actual amount of gas emitted by leaking assets, since the gas is not flowing through a metering device. Instead, factoring methods are used to determined, based on the type of each asset, what the likely fugitive emission is for a facility – such as a refinery or transmission network. In other words, it is the collection of assets that is assessed for fugitive emissions – based on averaging lots of small emissions.

This was the best method possible for many years, but new technology is now available that allows operators to measure fugitive emissions at a much more micro level. Individual assets or collections of assets can be quickly surveyed by drone, or by equipment left in-situ for continuous monitoring, and from this data, predictive technology can quantify the amount of gas being emitted.

This technology is available for use with many different types of sensors and measurement regimes, meaning that operators do not need to invest in new hardware or change existing monitoring processes.

Over the next 10 years, if we really are going to reduce emissions to just 64% of those of 2018, oil and gas asset operators must embrace new surveying and quantification technologies, not just for the sake of the planet but also for profitability.

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