It’s undeniable that the global energy sector is trending toward decarbonization. Catalyzed by the rough blows that the novel coronavirus pandemic dealt to the oil industry, the global energy transition is well underway, and it looks like renewable energies are almost certain to come out on top.  Big Oil is scrambling to diversify and rebrand itself as Big Energy while renewables are on track to become the new energy giants. This leaves natural gas–which has worked hard to brand itself as a “green” fossil fuel with relatively fewer emissions than oil or coal–in a bit of a tough spot. With coal pretty much out of the picture and oil fast in its footsteps to go the way of the dodo, natural gas can no longer lean on its image as a relatively green alternative. 

It’s true that natural gas has fewer carbon dioxide emissions than oil or coal when combusted. However, the process of extracting and natural gas produces a considerable amount of methane. While carbon dioxide is the poster child of greenhouse gases, methane is actually, in many ways, more damaging to the environment. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “The drilling and extraction of natural gas from wells and its transportation in pipelines results in the leakage of methane, [a] primary component of natural gas that is 34 times stronger than CO2 at trapping heat over a 100-year period and 86 times stronger over 20 years.”

In order to clean up its act and become more green than greenwashed to stay competitive in a more climate-conscious world, the natural gas industry needs to do something about it’s methane problem, and it needs to do so in a hurry. But first, the industry must overcome the considerable hurdle of quantifying exactly how much natural gas they are creating and expelling before they can figure out how to lower that number. As reported by the Energy Institute at Haas, “It’s hard to track – let alone regulate- emissions seeping from a million active wells and hundreds of thousands of miles of pipelines across the United States.” Related: Oil Prices Will Average Below $50 In 2021

A new Energy Institute study is working to tackle this problem exactly. The working paper, “Hard to Measure Well: Can Feasible Policies Reduce Methane Emissions?,” identifies quantifying methane emissions as the first step to finding a cost-effective and efficient means of lowering the natural gas industry’s greenhouse gas footprint. The problem is that much of these emissions come from leaks, which means that operators often aren’t aware that it’s happening in the first place, or how or where to patch the problem.

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The paper suggests three possible approaches to solving this issue. The first, least promising option involves trial and error audits in the hope of stumbling across a leak. In this scenario, the paper points out, firms would have very little incentive to proactively work on stopping leakage. The second approach is only slightly better, targeting wells that are most likely to be problem areas due to variables like their size and age. The third, and most promising approach, “assumes the regulator can use satellite-based measurements to detect leaks above a certain threshold,” reports the Energy Institute at Haas. “When leaks are remotely sensed, regulatory staff are dispatched to audit. Simulated outcomes under this approach are promising. Better leak detection coupled with the higher fine per unit of emissions leaked gives firms a much stronger incentive to invest in leak prevention.”

While an academic paper suggestic industry improvement is a far cry from actual change, it’s a definite step forward, especially considering that the natural gas industry is more likely than ever to take advice on how to make the sector more marketable in a changing climate (so to speak). 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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