Methane Leaks 'Serious but Solvable': Cheniere
The reputation of gas, once hailed as the clean fossil fuel that would fill the gaps until renewable energy became reliable and dispatchable, has been tarnished by flaring, venting and routine leaks of methane from poorly maintained facilities.
Methane is a major contributor to man-made greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), accounting for about 23% of the total, and this damages the prospects of gas as a transition fuel. Major decarbonisationn of all sectors is needed if the world is to achieve the Paris Climate Agreement's goal of limiting temperature rises – and not being coal is no longer enough. This could put the spanner in US gas companies' plans.
Fiji George, a senior director of the biggest US LNG exporter Cheniere and Steven Hamburg, the Environmental Defense Fund's chief scientist, were discussing the problem in a webinar hosted by the Dutch Energy Delta Institute January 28.
They agreed that a large proportion of the leaks could be eliminated – and without much cost and effort. Real-time monitoring and remedial action would quickly stop major leaks caused by the simple and common failure to close "thief hatches" at oil and gas fields, for example.
While the former US president, Donald Trump, came under fire for scrapping environmental regulations, the Obama government before him also made mistakes: his 2016 Clean Air Act ruled out some novel technologies. "Hopefully that will change," George said.
Hamburg said that methane had a big impact on the immediate rate of warming and so quick action in this area would reap long-term benefits. Hamburg said therefore that it was wrong to use 'tons of CO2 equivalent' as the metric for GHG, as methane was much worse than CO2 in the short-term. The short-term – out to 50 years – is where the focus should be, he said.
Cheniere sources its gas from all over the US for its two Gulf Coast terminals, Sabine Pass and Corpus Christi. It therefore relies on its gas being clean, and has to bring pressure to bear on all producers to maintain the reputation of the US upstream. As a major buyer, George suggested, Cheniere was well placed to apply pressure on producers: "We are the major salesmen for US gas abroad," he said. Wall Street and the financial sector elsewhere are also looking closely at gas and pollution in their investment strategies.
He said Cheniere was pursuing science-driven policies to address emissions as a lot of data available was irrelevant: in some cases the measurements of leaks were old, and had not been updated since legislative changes enforced better practices. In other cases, the explanation for wide discrepancies between two data sets was the human factor, such as miscalculations or applying the wrong methodology to the analysis.
So Cheniere is applying "quantification, monitoring, reporting and verification" in its quest to nail the problem, backed up by incentives and policies. "Someone sitting in Denver or Houston needs to know what is going on in the Marcellus [a major shale play in the US northeast]," he said. On the positive side, George said that methane is an easier GHG to abate than CO2.
The European Union in particular is worried about the carbon intensity of the gas it imports and it can bring pressure to bear, either through a carbon tax of some kind or by deciding to limit gas consumption by giving electrons preferential treatment through more favourable regulations and tariffs.
The European Commission (EC) published its methane strategy last year and is planning a new gas directive this year, along with other normative acts, in support of the Green Deal.
The continent's love-affair with gas has also suffered, since 2014, from bad relations with its biggest supplier, Russia – although Gazprom Export boss Elena Burmistrova told the European Gas Conference January 27 that Russian gas, delivered by its latest pipelines, had a lower carbon footprint than delivered US LNG and indeed it was essential to the success of the EU's Green Deal.