IEA: U.S. CO2 Emissions Continue to Drop, Thanks to Shale

Today, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report finding that even as global CO2 emissions increased by 1.4 percent, emissions from the United States dropped by 200 million tons, or 3.8 percent.  In fact, as the report explains, “CO2 emissions in the United States have now declined four of the last five years, 2010 being the exception. Their 2012 level was last seen in mid-1990s (p. 27).”  That’s quite a remarkable feat – how did we manage that? The answer is simple: It’s natural gas.

As the report explains, the drop in US emissions due to natural gas is one of the “bright spots” of IEA’s global outlook:

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, which has led to lower prices and increased competiveness of natural gas versus coal in the US power sector. Over the period 2008-2012, when total US power demand was relatively flat, the share of coal in US electricity output fell from 49% to 37%, while gas increased from 21% to 30% (and renewables rose from 9% to 12%). The large availability of spare capacity facilitated this quick transformation. In 2011, when the share of gas had already increased significantly, the utilisation rate of combined-cycle gas turbines was still below 50% (IEA, 2013b). Gas-fired combined-cycle plants produce on average half the emissions per kilowatt hour than conventional coal-fired generation (p. 28).

At the core of the report is what IEA calls its “4-for-2 °C Scenario”, a proposal of four policy measures that IEA states could achieve a 2 °C reduction by 2020 without a net economic cost.  Of course, such a feat would not be possible without the development and use of natural gas, as IEA acknowledges.

But to reduce these emissions further, IEA spends some time in its report laying out specific technologies and techniques that producers can use to prevent leaks, detect and capture emissions, and generally develop and transport natural gas more easily and efficiently. The good news? Almost every single technology cited in the IEA report is already in commercial use here in the United States. The bad news? IEA, like EPA, seems to be relying on a starting point assumption for current natural-gas related emissions that’s nowhere close to the realm of reality.

As the report states:

For the analysis of methane emissions from venting during other oil and gas field operations, we used a detailed bottom up analysis by the US EPA that assessed US methane emissions by process step and equipment type as a basis for our global assessment (US EPA, 2013). Using this analysis as a starting point, together with production levels by region, we analysed country-specific field operation practices according to the type of development(unconventional/conventional and onshore/offshore), by region and by type of hydrocarbon, taking into account the average age of existing oil and gas fields, the regulatory environment and the availability of technology. This enabled us to derive a global assessment of total methane emissions from oil and gas field operations, which are assessed as 45 Mt CH4 (1 115 Mt CO2-eq) in 2010 […] The largest reductions are in Russia, the Middle East, Africa and the United States. They are achieved through a combination of rapid and broadbased implementation of low-cost and technological best operational practices, e.g. fewer start-ups/shutdowns, more frequent inspections, installation of electronic flare ignition, replacement of pneumatic controls by mechanical ones and upgraded dehydrators. These measures would account for about half of the reduction in emissions in 2020 (p. 64-5).

As we’ve explained previously, EPA’s methane numbers are greatly exaggerated because the agency relies on assumptions that are simply not based on actual U.S. industry practice. Here’s just one example: EPA assumes that if a company is not required to utilize “green completions” (where methane is captured at the well head) or the flaring process (where the methane is burned off), then it must be the case that companies are simply venting methane into the air (could you imagine the safety hazard that would create if it were actually true?!).  EPA also assumes that the flowback periods for green-completed wells are identical to wells that vent or flare the gas, which means that EPA is calculating durations of emissions that are more than double what they actually are.

In other words, the methane reductions that IEA calls for are already much greater than assumed in the United States – and future reductions are set to be even greater. How else could the United States have decreased CO2 levels by 3.8 percent while dramatically increasing natural gas production – all while emissions everywhere else continue to rise?


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