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Sandbox:Monitoring and reducing methane emissions
According to the World Bank, over 7,500,000 kt of methane were released into the atmosphere worldwide as a result of agriculture and industry. The United States government is developing regulations to reduce methane emissions from the oil industry by more than 40% over the next decade. Methane emissions are second only to carbon dioxide as contributors to the greenhouse effect. At the same time, the government is investing money in research to seek reliable ways to measure the level of methane emissions in the atmosphere that have come directly from natural gas production.
Measuring methane emissions
Natural gas makes up about a quarter of the energy used in the United States. New production methods, including those related to hydraulic fracturing, are expanding access to natural gas and have increased natural gas based power, which is credited with decreasing greenhouse gas emissions in the country. Recent estimates for methane emissions from natural gas industries in the United States have been widely divergent. Some discrepancies noted by industry surveys have led to a thorough review of newly available information and are leading to the improvement of estimation methods and emission factors associated with activities that comprise natural-gas systems. This has manifested itself in the engineering estimations that are used for compiling the national GHG Emissions Inventory and in the methods used by companies for reporting under the mandatory national GHG Reporting Program. Both the inventory and the reporting program are programs of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The EPA reports that nearly 29% of all methane emissions in 2012 came from oil and gas industry activity. It is the largest source, followed by enteric fermentation, at 25%, which is the digestive process used by grazing animals, such as cattle, producing methane as a gassy byproduct. Those animals also produce manure, which is responsible for an added 9% of methane emitted. Other estimates suggest far higher industry emission levels. That matters to the oil and gas business because those numbers will guide future emissions rule making.
Using direct measures of emissions from devices on 377 wells operated by 10 companies cooperating on the survey, Allen gathered data that reshaped the EPA’s pie chart of E&P emissions of methane. The study concluded that emissions during flowback have sharply dropped from 26% in the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory to 1%. That decline, plus larger-than-expected emissions by gas-powered pneumatic control devices, pushed its share of the natural gas emissions from the EPA estimate of 26% to 42%, making it the largest single category.
Reducing methane emissions
The EPA estimates that the industry’s natural gas emissions are down by 16% since 1990. The largest gains over that period were from reduced emissions from control devices and installation of plunger lift systems. In recent years, some of the biggest gains have come from green well-completion methods, which capture gas that once escaped from fluids flowing back after fracturing. This is either flared or captured, processed, and sold to pipelines.
The EPA predicted that without further action by the industry and regulators, natural gas emissions would rise by 25% by 2025 as gas production rises. While the federal government is considering further action, some states have made moves. Colorado has become a proving ground for methane emission reduction methods, as well as research seeking better emission measurements.
What began as a deal to sharply reduce methane emissions negotiated among Colorado officials, three oil companies (Anadarko, Noble Energy, and Encana), and the EDF has led to a program to sharply reduce releases of methane and hydrocarbons that are ingredients in smog, known as volatile organic compounds (VOC).
Cost of reducing emissions
Creating an emissions tracking system that accurately accounts for all the major sources of methane is a huge challenge on many fronts, from the high-cost logistics associated with gathering big data in the air and on the ground to analyzing it using advanced methods needed to simulate how emissions move in the atmosphere.
A study commissioned by EDF, done by the consulting firm ICF International, concluded that the added cost of a 40% reduction in emissions from the natural gas production, processing, and delivery system would cost about a penny per Mcf and could largely be done using available technology.
- Ritter, K., Shires, T.M., Lev-On, M. 2015. Methane Emissions From Natural-Gas Systems: A Comparative Assessment for Select Industry Segments. SPE Economics & Management 7(01): 22 - 28. SPE-168379-PA. http://dx.doi.org/10.2118/168379-PA.
- Rassenfoss, S. Pressure to Reduce Methane Emissions Highlights the Need for Better Monitoring. J Pet Tech 67 (3): 46-52. http://www.spe.org/jpt/article/8437-pressure-to-reduce-methane-emissions-highlights-the-need-for-better-monitoring/.