• 2 days PDVSA Booted From Caribbean Terminal Over Unpaid Bills
  • 2 days Russia Warns Ukraine Against Recovering Oil Off The Coast Of Crimea
  • 2 days Syrian Rebels Relinquish Control Of Major Gas Field
  • 2 days Schlumberger Warns Of Moderating Investment In North America
  • 2 days Oil Prices Set For Weekly Loss As Profit Taking Trumps Mideast Tensions
  • 3 days Energy Regulators Look To Guard Grid From Cyberattacks
  • 3 days Mexico Says OPEC Has Not Approached It For Deal Extension
  • 3 days New Video Game Targets Oil Infrastructure
  • 3 days Shell Restarts Bonny Light Exports
  • 3 days Russia’s Rosneft To Take Majority In Kurdish Oil Pipeline
  • 3 days Iraq Struggles To Replace Damaged Kirkuk Equipment As Output Falls
  • 3 days British Utility Companies Brace For Major Reforms
  • 3 days Montenegro A ‘Sweet Spot’ Of Untapped Oil, Gas In The Adriatic
  • 3 days Rosneft CEO: Rising U.S. Shale A Downside Risk To Oil Prices
  • 4 days Brazil Could Invite More Bids For Unsold Pre-Salt Oil Blocks
  • 4 days OPEC/Non-OPEC Seek Consensus On Deal Before Nov Summit
  • 4 days London Stock Exchange Boss Defends Push To Win Aramco IPO
  • 4 days Rosneft Signs $400M Deal With Kurdistan
  • 4 days Kinder Morgan Warns About Trans Mountain Delays
  • 4 days India, China, U.S., Complain Of Venezuelan Crude Oil Quality Issues
  • 4 days Kurdish Kirkuk-Ceyhan Crude Oil Flows Plunge To 225,000 Bpd
  • 4 days Russia, Saudis Team Up To Boost Fracking Tech
  • 5 days Conflicting News Spurs Doubt On Aramco IPO
  • 5 days Exxon Starts Production At New Refinery In Texas
  • 5 days Iraq Asks BP To Redevelop Kirkuk Oil Fields
  • 5 days Oil Prices Rise After U.S. API Reports Strong Crude Inventory Draw
  • 5 days Oil Gains Spur Growth In Canada’s Oil Cities
  • 6 days China To Take 5% Of Rosneft’s Output In New Deal
  • 6 days UAE Oil Giant Seeks Partnership For Possible IPO
  • 6 days Planting Trees Could Cut Emissions As Much As Quitting Oil
  • 6 days VW Fails To Secure Critical Commodity For EVs
  • 6 days Enbridge Pipeline Expansion Finally Approved
  • 6 days Iraqi Forces Seize Control Of North Oil Co Fields In Kirkuk
  • 6 days OPEC Oil Deal Compliance Falls To 86%
  • 6 days U.S. Oil Production To Increase in November As Rig Count Falls
  • 6 days Gazprom Neft Unhappy With OPEC-Russia Production Cut Deal
  • 7 days Disputed Venezuelan Vote Could Lead To More Sanctions, Clashes
  • 7 days EU Urges U.S. Congress To Protect Iran Nuclear Deal
  • 7 days Oil Rig Explosion In Louisiana Leaves 7 Injured, 1 Still Missing
  • 7 days Aramco Says No Plans To Shelve IPO
Andrew Topf

Andrew Topf

With over a decade of journalistic experience working in newspapers, trade publications and as a mining reporter, Andrew Topf is a seasoned business writer. Andrew also…

More Info

Is Natural Gas As Clean As We Think?

Is Natural Gas As Clean As We Think?

This week U.S. President Barack Obama took aim at the American coal industry as part of a comprehensive climate change plan to limit air emissions from what many consider the country's worst polluter.

Under the plan, states will have until 2030 to cut CO2 levels by a third from what they were in 2005. Outside the United States, Europe is using less coal, the Canadian province of Ontario shut down its coal-fired power generation (albeit in favor of more expensive renewables), and the World Bank last week rejected the notion that coal can cure poverty.

Even coal-hungry China has banned coal-fired power plants in Beijing, finally cowing to health and environmental concerns in the smog-choked capital.

Having turned their backs on coal, many countries are looking to natural gas as an alternative power source. China is plunging headlong into building liquefied natural gas import terminals, and countries are lining up to export it, including Australia, Russia and the United States, which in 2014 approved its fourth LNG export terminal, Dominion Cove Point in Maryland. Related: Global Oil Supply More Fragile Than You Think

British Columbia’s governing Liberal Party has staked its political future on developing LNG terminals to receive natural gas from the Canadian province's northeast region, telling voters in the last election it would use revenues from LNG production to wipe out the provincial debt.

Part of the sales job was to characterize natural gas as a clean fuel whose use will actually help decrease global fossil fuel emissions, since nations that switch to it are typically moving from dirty coal-fired power to clean LNG.

But is natural gas really as pristine as its proponents claim?

Not according to a new report released by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in June. The report estimated the amount of gas that is leaked, vented or flared from natural gas and oil production on U.S. federal and tribal lands. It found that 65 billion cubic feet was released in 2013 – the equivalent of the greenhouse gases produced by 5.6 million cars. In New Mexico, a methane “hot spot,” was detected by NASA satellites and in one drilling-heavy part of Wyoming a town measured air pollution readings that rivaled Los Angeles. Related: Even The Saudis Need To Borrow To Survive Oil Price Slump

The amount of leaked gas is massive in economic as well as environmental terms; at current prices, the escaped product is worth $360 million.

But the main worry is the amount of methane escaping from natural gas wells. As the main ingredient of natural gas, methane is considered 30 to 84 times more powerful than CO2. A senior researcher at Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit, told The Guardian that the EDF's numbers suggest about 2.2 percent of the gas measured in their study is leaking – enough to negate the environmental benefits of natural gas over coal.

How is the industry allowing this to happen?

One source is a pneumatic controller that opens and closes valves used in gas pipelines. In a 2014 test of 100 wells in Texas, one fifth of the pneumatic controllers emitted all the leaked methane. In another widely used practice, liquid unloading, “[r]ising gas carries liquid with it that can plug up the well. When workers remove the liquid, gas escapes into the air, sometimes tens of thousands of cubic feet of gas,” according to a 2014 NPR radio interview about the research.

There is evidence to suggest that, like the small percentage of old clunkers on highways that create most of the pollution, it's the bad apples of the natural gas industry that are leaking much of the gas. Another recently published study in Environmental Science & Technology found that a relatively small number of large leaks from run-down equipment and facilities accounted for 40 percent of all methane leaking from the United States' pipeline and natural gas storage infrastructure. Ways for companies to reduce natural gas leaks include replacing old reciprocating compressors with newer models that emit a lot less methane. Related: The Latest Contender For The Next Shale Boom

In the United States, federal and state governments are cracking down on methane leaks from the oil and gas industry. In January the EPA announced its first-ever standards to cut methane emissions. The standards aim to reduce methane emissions up to 45 percent by 2025, from a 2012 baseline. The new rules will address emissions from hydraulic fracturing at the wellhead, with the EPA requiring flowback mixture gases, which often contain methane, to be captured rather than allowed to return to the surface. For oil and gas operators, that means employing reduced emission completion (REC) technologies, with flaring used as a last resort.

Some states are already ahead of the federal curve. In 2014, Colorado became the first state to regulate methane emissions, Wyoming has tough pollution controls in areas of heavy drilling, and North Dakota has reduced flaring, notes the EDF in its report.

Like all methods of energy production, natural gas isn't immune to unpleasant byproducts, and the emission of methane is the most obvious one to be avoided. However with increased regulation and more frequent deployment of technologies that limit natural gas leaks, the industry should be able to nip this problem in the bud. If it doesn't, operators should expect regulations to tighten, and if leaks continue to occur, the reputation of natural gas as a clean fossil fuel alternative will surely be sullied.

By Andrew Topf of Oilprice.com

More Top Reads From Oilprice.com:

Back to homepage

Leave a comment
  • Michael Montgomery on August 09 2015 said:
    So what the heck are we supposed to use as fuel? Coal-bad; Gas-bad; Nuclear-bad; Solar-limited and not efficient; Wind-bad in abundance. Come on, we are not going back to wind mills, hydro-powered grain mills without vastly depopulating the planet.
  • julie on March 28 2016 said:
    why shouldn't we use fuel that is how we do get around and yes shouldn't use coal

Leave a comment

Oilprice - The No. 1 Source for Oil & Energy News