Four Facts about a New Global Methane Study

Ahead of the United Nations climate change meeting this year in Paris, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) released a new report conducted by the Rhodium Group, which evaluates methane emissions from oil and gas development on a global scale, evaluating the amount of emissions from all the top producing countries.  Here are a few important facts to know while evaluating the new report:

Fact #1: U.S emissions are plummeting as oil and gas production skyrockets

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just released its latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory, which found that methane emissions from natural gas production have fallen dramatically – by 38 percent since 2005. Over the same period, U.S. natural gas production has increased by 26 percent.

EPA’s data corroborate a number of recent studies, including a recent report by researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which found that methane leakage rates from three major shale developing regions – the Haynesville shale region in Texas/northwestern Louisiana, the Fayetteville shale region in Arkansas, and the northeastern Pennsylvania portion of the Marcellus shale – were exceedingly low, at about 1.1 percent of production.  Importantly, as that study also found, these areas collectively represent over half of the United States’ total shale gas production.

study published late last year by researchers at the University of Texas — as well as studies by MIT, the University of Marylandmultiple reports from the U.S. Department of Energy, Carnegie Mellon and even Cornell University — show low very methane leakage rates.

Finally, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found in its latest assessment that even taking into account methane leakage during natural gas production, natural gas still maintains its climate benefits:

“Taking into account revised estimates for fugitive methane emissions, recent lifecycle assessments indicate that specific GHG emissions are reduced by one half (on a per‐kWh basis) when shifting from the current world‐average coal‐fired power plant to a modern natural gas combined‐cycle (NGCC) power plant, evaluated using the 100‐year global warming potentials (GWP) (Burnham et al., 2012), as indicated in Figure 7.6 (Section 7.8).”

The EDF/ Rhodium Group estimates U.S. methane emissions to be 1.3 percent of production, which is well below the threshold for natural gas to maintain climate benefits.

Fact #2: The United States is the number one oil and gas producer, yet the report’s data show Russia’s emissions are more than double those of the United States

According to the data presented in the EDF/Rhodium Group report, the United States’ contribution to global methane emissions from oil and gas development make up 52 percent less than Russia’s contribution.  In other words, Russia’s methane emissions are more than double those of the United States even though we have far outpaced them in production!

In fact, that’s one of the reasons that a recent peer reviewed study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that exporting clean-burning natural gas from the United States would help reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  That’s not only because natural gas is clean burning – but since natural gas production in the United States has far fewer methane emissions than natural gas production in the second largest producing country, Russia, global GHGs would be further reduced from U.S. LNG exports. From the Carnegie Mellon report:

“When considering a 100-year GWP, mean life cycle emissions from exported U.S. LNG are 13% lower than those from Russian natural gas exports, and result in about 45% fewer emissions than traditional electricity generation.” (Pg. E)

Fact #3: Since many countries don’t report methane emissions, there’s a lot of uncertainty regarding the report’s top emitting countries

As the EDF/ Rhodium Group report explains,

“Many countries report only aggregate methane emissions numbers and at infrequent intervals.  Some countries don’t report GHG emission at all.”

It states further,

“There are some surprising absences from this top 30 list. Several major oil and gas producers were excluded because no emissions data have been reported to the UNFCCC. This includes Iraq, Angola, Libya, and Syria. Also, as noted in the previous section, many countries’ reported leakage rates are extremely low when compared to countries with similar resource and technology profiles. With exceptionally low reported leakage rates these countries rank lower than their overall oil and gas production profiles would suggest. For example, based on nationally reported leakage rates, China and Colombia emitted the same amount of methane in 2012. Yet China produced more than four times as much oil and nine times as much natural gas that year. Because China’s reported leakage rate is one fifth Columbia’s, China ranks lower on the list. Many other major oil producing countries, like Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar, did not make the top 30 because of their very low leakage rates, but are included in Table 2 to highlight the importance of variability in effective leakage rates in determining overall methane emissions estimates.”

That uncertainty is important to consider in EDF/Rhodium Group report’s ranking of the United States as the second highest methane emitter.

Fact #4: Greenhouse gas emissions are plummeting, thanks to the increased use of natural gas

A Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) short-term energy forecast finds that electricity-related carbon emissions are dropping to their lowest levels since 1994 and that “2015 will be the cleanest year in over 60 years for which we have historical data,” thanks to the increased use of natural gas made possible by fracking.

The IPCC found in its latest climate assessment,

“A key development since AR4 is the rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies, which has increased and diversified the gas supply… this is an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.”

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) found recently that the “increase in natural gas-fired generation…substantially reduced the carbon intensity of electricity generation in 2012.”

The Paris-based International Energy Agency reported that the “decline in energy-related CO2 emissions in the United States in recent years has been one of the bright spots in the global picture. One of the key reasons has been the increased availability of natural gas, linked to the shale gas revolution.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has credited the increased use of natural gas as the primary reason CO2 emissions from U.S. power plants “were 23 percent lower in 2012.”

Obama administration officials and scientists have agreed:

  • EPA administrator Gina McCarthy: “Responsible development of natural gas is an important part of our work to curb climate change.”
  • Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz: “About half of that progress we have made [on greenhouse gas emissions] is from the natural-gas boom.”
  • University of California-Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller: “Environmentalists who oppose the development of shale gas and fracking are making a tragic mistake.”

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