Can technology save the climate? These companies are betting $1 billion it can

Photo credit John Davidson.

Last November, on the same day the Paris climate agreement took effect, 10 of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, including BG Group, BP, Eni, Pemex, Reliance Industries, Repsol, Saudi Aramco, Shell, Statoil and Total, announced a billion-dollar investment in climate solutions. Together, the member-companies of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) produce 20 percent of the world’s oil and gas and operate in 55 countries.

Their commitment was the beginning sign of a growing and public recognition by the oil and gas industry that tomorrow’s low carbon energy transformation has become today’s new energy imperative.

Right now, the biggest, most pressing climate item for the oil and gas industry is methane. Importantly, OGCI’s announcement included a global focus on reducing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Far more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year timespan, methane is responsible for about a quarter of the warming we feel today.

Many expect OGCI to direct hundreds of millions of its billion-dollar pledge into addressing methane. Beyond the climate benefits, it’s a smart business investment. The International Energy Agency has said, “the potential for natural gas to play a credible role in the transition to a decarbonized energy system fundamentally depends on minimizing these emissions.” Simply put, methane is an existential threat for an industry and its long term investors banking on natural gas to aid the transition to a lower-carbon energy economy.

Potential is high for OGCI’s methane endeavor to catalyze important breakthroughs. With sets of OGCI members holding joint stakes in nearly 250 natural gas projects worldwide, there is opportunity to catalyze and spread methane emission reductions throughout the whole industry. We stand ready to help OGCI develop innovative solutions and offer the following suggestions as it begins its methane work.

Data Drives Success

Data alone won’t solve the methane challenge. But strong and credible data are essential. In the United States, vast scientific initiatives have greatly improved our understanding of methane leaks, releases and total emissions from oil and gas activity. This scientific understanding helps companies identify reduction opportunities and regulators develop sound, data-based regulations.

Globally, however, methane measurement is much less mature. Filling the gaps to better inform how companies and countries can address this problem in other parts of the world is important, while companies continue to pursue mitigation opportunities. As a future founding member of the UN’s Oil and Gas Methane Science Studies partnership, OGCI is positioned to bolster reliable and transparent methane science worldwide.

Innovation Requires Collaboration

Some of the innovation required to solve the methane challenge will come from collaboration within and among the OGCI companies. But not all of it. Around the world, there are entrepreneurs, scientists and investors that are already tackling methane. In our experience with the Methane Detectors Challenge, we learned that innovation requires early and ongoing collaboration across technology and energy sector lines. Without it, entrepreneurs don’t know what the market needs or wants and energy companies don’t know what technologists can deliver.

Today, there are gaps of information, culture, language and understanding between technology entrepreneurs and the energy companies they are trying to serve. Closing these gaps by supporting technology innovation is a prime opportunity for an industry group like OGCI to support, and OGCI is positioned to do this now that it has set up a smaller investment vehicle with the license to be nimble.

Focus on Prevention and Detection

Preventing methane leaks and finding them quickly are the two most important methane opportunities.

Every leak that is prevented is a leak that doesn’t need to be repaired. Innovation in design, technologies and strategies that prevent emissions at specific and known sources of equipment should be top of mind for OGCI. For example, aerial measurement studies have shown that tanks are significant emission sources, some of which are not properly controlled. Routine methane releases from inefficient or malfunctioning valves are also believed to be a significant source.

An undetected methane leak can leak indefinitely. It’s one reason why periodic detection is so important, and efficient airborne sweeps for large leaks should be investigated. But while routine checks are better than none, they can still allow leaks to persist for months at a time. In the United States alone, studies have shown that 10 percent of leaks are responsible for 80 percent of emissions. Fortunately, next-generation detection technologies are being developed to catch large leaks with the speed we’d expect in the digital age.

Statoil, a Norwegian-based international oil and gas company and OGCI member, is pioneering continuous methane emissions monitoring at a well pad in Texas, and a leading natural gas utility is doing the same in California. These are promising developments, bringing real-time methane monitors to market. Now, the next level of industry leadership from groups such as OCGI are vital to help spur competition in this growing segment and drive unit deployment up and costs down.

Avoiding the wasteful flaring of natural gas in favor of recapturing the fuel is another worthy opportunity to tighten the oil and gas system. There are roughly 16,000 flares worldwide, and some flares burn all day and night. OGCI can galvanize investors and operators to provide the capital and incentives to put entrepreneurs to work turning wasted gas into productive use.

Results Matter

OGCI’s success will be measured by the amount of methane reductions it delivers. Now is the time for OGCI to set a clear path for how it will achieve success with its multi-million dollar methane mitigation endeavor.

EDF’s global goal – reducing oil and gas methane emissions 45 percent by 2025 – coincides with OGCI’s 10-year mandate and is a mark we encourage the group to embrace or exceed. Industry leaders and investors need to manage methane risk so that natural gas is a cleaner, more responsible transition fuel. Governments and their citizens need to know that industry is doing all it can to address the global methane challenge. OGCI is in a unique position to spur innovation that can satisfy both needs.

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