Lasers, circuit boards and a $30 sensor: innovative solutions to the methane problem

This post originally appeared on EDF Voices.

The technologies we see today didn’t all start out in the forms we’re used to. The phones we carry in our pockets used to weigh pounds, not ounces. Engineers developed hundreds of designs for wind turbines before landing on the three-blade design commonly seen in the field.


(Missy Schmidt/Flickr)

Fast forward and now we're looking at a drunk-driver-and-alcohol sensor that was converted into a methane leak detector. And a sensor purchased off the web for less than $30 that was transformed into a monitor that fights off greenhouse gases.

I was excited to see the diversity of technologies such as these moving forward in the Methane Detectors Challenge.

Environmental Defense Fund’s initiative with seven oil and natural gas companies—including Shell and Anadarko Petroleum Company, the latest two to join—seeks to catalyze a new generation of technology for finding methane leaks in the oil and gas sector – a powerful contributor to climate change.

Read more

Changing the Methane Numbers Game

Adding to the drumbeat for action on the supercharged climate pollutant methane, Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously” series recently spotlighted methane emissions leaking from America’s oil and natural gas infrastructure.


One theme of the May 19 episode hinged on a numbers question: Just how much methane is getting out? This question, a common one in the methane arena, refers to the national methane leakage rate for the entire oil and gas supply chain.

Various numbers, as low as 1 percent, were suggested for the national average with 4 percent, 11 percent and even 17 percent reported by scientific studies in some oil-and-gas producing regions. The problem is, it’s the wrong question.

We should stop fixating the debate on just how bad the problem is, when we know there is a problem and we can address it with confidence today.

Read more

Methane Emissions Are Risky Business

benI came to Environmental Defense Fund from the management consulting world, and was fortunate to bring a couple of lessons with me. A simple one is that successful companies keep a finger on the pulse of the returns and risks in their industry and core businesses. The oil and gas industry has a growing risk on its hands, and that risk is methane emissions.

Study after scientific study has shown that methane emissions from oil and gas are a leading source of that powerful greenhouse gas. At more than 100x the climate impact of carbon dioxide when it is first released, methane is a supercharged contributor to climate change.

Methane escapes into the atmosphere from oil and gas production wells and associated equipment, gas compressors, and many other sources. Every ton of methane pollution is resources being wasted. Every ton contributes to an unstable climate in our lifetimes. Read more

EDF Bowes Fellow Works to Revolutionize Nitrogen Use in Farms

When was the last time you enjoyed a chicken sandwich for lunch, chicken wings at a bar, or grilled chicken at a family cookout? If you’re like many Americans – myself included – the answer is recently. We all know poultry is a staple. But what many don’t know is that producing all that chicken takes a lot of resources and creates a large environmental footprint that stretches from the plate to millions of acres of corn and soybeans. In fact, the largest part of poultry’s environmental footprint is from corn fields.

The reason? The corn that dominates poultry diets depends on huge amounts of fertilizer packed with nitrogen – a key nutrient to make things grow. That’s not a problem in itself, but here’s the rub: closely matching nitrogen applied to what the crop takes up is very difficult, and many farmers lack the information they need to be efficient.  Apply too much, and extra nitrogen runs off into water or is released to the atmosphere as greenhouse gas. But apply too little, and the farmer loses yield.

Fortunately, there is a proven solution to this challenge facing both farmers and the environment. A small but growing group of farmers from Iowa plains to North Carolina hills are approaching fertilizer differently. Armed with technology like GPS and aerial imagery, farmers gain much better information about the nutrient needs of their own fields. Empowered, they fine-tune how they manage nitrogen to apply the right rate at the right time and place. Those advances slash nitrogen runoff and greenhouse gas emissions. And they bring something equally important – cash savings for farmers who can cut fertilizer costs without hurting the yield they and their families depend on.

The exciting news is that the fact based solution is known. The challenge is that we need to take it to scale on the over 90 million acres of American corn farmland. As Corporate Partnership’s Project Manager and inaugural William K. Bowes Fellow, I will use my McKinsey consulting expertise to help find innovative business approaches that make that happen. If you have an appetite for this kind of progress, I hope you’ll stay tuned and share your voice.