Barnett Shale emissions bun fight has easy (and cheap) solution

Barnett Shale methane emissions studies find a few super-emitting facilities to blame

A dispute between the oil and gas industry and eco-activists over fugitive methane emissions in the Barnett Shale nicely illustrates my argument of three months ago why the energy sector should voluntarily address environmental issues.

Barnett Shale

Robert Talbot, University of Houston.

Earlier this week, Environmental Science & Technology published a series of 11 papers on methane emissions in the Barnett Shale. The studies were coordinated by the Environmental Defense Fund, with funding from the Alfred P. Sloane Foundation.

Researchers tested 152 facilities – 125 well pads, 13 compressor stations, two gas processing plants 12 landfills – during the 15-day test period. Interestingly, well pads generally had low emission rates. The “considerably” higher release rates were mostly recorded at compressor stations and processing plants, according to a release from the University of Houston, which contributed most of the researchers.

Robert Talbot, professor of atmospheric chemistry at UH, said some methane emissions can be attributed to human error, compounded by the fact that sites are often left unattended for long periods of time.

“A lot of them are a broken valve, or someone leaves a hatch open. It’s human error. And nobody goes back to the site for a month or so,” he said in the release.

Barnett Shale

Mark Brownstein, Environmental Defense Fund. Photo: EDF.

Mark Brownstein, vice president, Climate and Energy Program for the EDF, estimates the Barnett Shale methane emissions to equal $66 million per year, “enough gas to meet the heating and cooking needs of roughly 320,000 homes and to deliver the equivalent climate benefit of cutting emissions from nine coal plants over the next 20 years.”

Let me summarize what we know thus far: Of the 30,000 oil and gas wells, 275 compressor stations, and 40 processing plants (numbers provided by the EDF), a few of the facilities are leaking large amounts of methane. And, apparently, fixing the problem is cheap and easy, whether through routine inspections and repairs or cost-effective technology.

In other words, this may be the easiest solution in the history of American oil and gas environmental issues.

If it were only that simple.

The bun fight, you see, is really over government regulation. The EDF wants more of it, industry wants less.

In a blog post, Brownstein points approvingly to states like Colorado that are moving to regulate fugitive methane emissions. He writes that we “don’t have any doubt that industry could manage this problem more effectively, without undue hardship or cost. But as with fire safety, there’s no evidence it will happen without proper regulations requiring every oil and gas facility to do what needs to be done…”

Barnett Shale

Ed Ireland, Ph.D. is the executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council.

Industry disagrees.

“…it is clear that the researchers found that the majority of the tests showed extremely low emission rates for methane,” Ed Ireland, executive director Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, said in an email statement to American Energy News.

“So what the reports actually say is that the vast majority of natural gas sites in the Barnett Shale have methane emissions well below the point where natural gas loses its climate advantages. High emission sites were clearly the exception rather than the rule.”

The obvious conclusion is that if methane emission rates are that low, no regulation is required. Steve Everley, executive director for Energy In Depth, an industry organization, made the anti-regulation more explicitly.

“While some people may try to emphasize the few examples of high emissions, no doubt as part of a push for even more EPA regulations, the ‘high emission’ sites were clearly the exception rather than the rule,” he said in an emailed statement.

Barnett Shale

Steve Everley, Energy In Depth.

So, do the Barnett Shale studies argue for regulation (by the EPA or state regulators, in this case the Texas Railroad Commission)?

Well, are a few leaky valves and hatches, along with the odd “super-emitter” well, worth the cost to the regulator and industry to solve a relatively minor and easily fixed problem?

I would argue, no. There are plenty more serious issues that require attention from regulators.

But is the status quo good enough? Absolutely not.

As I suggested back in April, if industry wants to avoid regulation, it should respond with aggressive voluntary measures.

In fact, this is a great opportunity for industry to demonstrate firm leadership and show that it takes seriously both the issue at hand (fugitive methane emissions) and the larger question of climate change.

Why not convene a conference that includes the researchers and industry representatives, where the studies and potential solutions – and their rapid implementation – can be discussed?

Seems to me that plucking the low hanging fruit in the climate change debate is a pretty good PR strategy, never mind recovering lost revenue and doing some good for the environment.

Why not turn the bun fight into an opportunity to do good?

Posted in: Markham on Energy