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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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A Zero-Cost Solution For The Oil Industry’s Methane Problem

As the spread of the novel coronavirus disrupted industries around the world, the rate of global greenhouse gas emissions took a big dip. BP’s annual Statistical Review of World Energy, released Thursday, compiles data showing that the 2020 global health crisis resulted in falling rates of primary energy and carbon emissions at levels unseen since World War II. World energy demand plummeted by an estimated 4.5 percent and global carbon emissions resulting from energy use dropped by 6.3 percent -- historically massive contractions. But the real headline is that, even with these dips in emissions, net emissions of carbon dioxide and methane -- two of the most potent greenhouse gases that are influencing climate change -- surged in 2020. Even though the rate of growth slowed, not even a global pandemic could keep emissions from rising in the end.

The pandemic did save us from having the biggest annual rise in emissions in history, but it was still a doozy of a year according to data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “The global surface average for carbon dioxide (CO2), calculated from measurements collected at NOAA’s remote sampling locations, was 412.5 parts per million (ppm) in 2020, rising by 2.6 ppm during the year,” the government report read. “The global rate of increase was the fifth-highest in NOAA’s 63-year record, following 1987, 1998, 2015 and 2016.” Methane emissions also “showed a significant jump,” which is particularly worrying. Methane is far less abundant in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but is 28 times more potent when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere.

While carbon dioxide gets most of the credit and most of the attention for global warming, methane is a serious and growing problem. In fact, an upcoming United Nations report is expected to emphasize the increasing importance of getting serious about lowering methane emissions in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. This will have major implications for the oil and gas industry, as methane is the main component of natural gas. According to reporting from the New York Times, the forthcoming UN report “singles out the fossil fuel industry as holding the greatest potential to cut its methane emissions at little or no cost.” It also notes, importantly, that expanding the production and use of natural gas to any degree is fundamentally incompatible with meeting the emissions goals set by the Paris climate agreement and the targets set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial averages.

This is a critical moment for the climate and for methane emissions as the global economy begins to reopen after the pandemic-induced shutdown and demand for oil and gas bounces back. Not only is fossil fuel demand expected to rebound to pre-pandemic levels, but it is set to increase. Last year the fossil fuel industry released 70 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere, “roughly equivalent to all the carbon dioxide produced by the European Union,” according to reporting from CBS News. But the industry could conceivably cut a whopping 40 percent, or 28 metric tons, of those emissions at absolutely zero net cost.

A recent U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) report said that this can be done by plugging the leaks in the hydraulic fracturing process, upgrading outdated equipment, and prohibiting the venting of methane straight into the atmosphere in order to access a pipeline or get rid of unwanted gas that comes as a byproduct of oil extraction. Leaks are a huge and common issue in the industry, as the gas is colorless and odorless, and aging equipment releases more and more of it over time. There are ways, however, of finding, monitoring, and fixing these leaks early on through the use of technologies such as infrared cameras or satellite imaging. These imperatives are simple enough to carry out and reducing methane leaks and overall emissions "is among the most cost-effective and impactful actions that governments can take to achieve global climate goals," according to the EIA.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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