Methane Detectors Challenge: An Unlikely Partnership

The 2016 election was one of the most divisive in recent history. I cannot remember a more polarizing time. However, today, I believe, more strongly than ever, that many Americans across the political spectrum have a hunger for something better: for turning down the volume, having rational conversations and finding common ground that unites us.

In the energy sector and environmental communities, this common ground means achieving solutions that benefit the environment and help businesses thrive, not pitting one against the other.

Three years ago, Environmental Defense Fund launched the Methane Detectors Challenge, an unlikely partnership between oil and gas companies and U.S.-based technology developers. This partnership aims to reduce methane emissions by catalyzing technology solutions that continuously detect these emissions. This is our story.

 A Shared Problem, A Shared Solution

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About 25 percent of today’s warming is driven by emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Methane emissions from the oil and gas industry speed global climate change, waste a valuable energy resource (methane is the key component of natural gas), and often slip into the atmosphere with other pollutants, harming air quality.

In other words, methane emissions are a problem and detecting leaks quickly is a needed solution.

However, in 2013, we learned that no oil and gas operators were conducting 24/7 monitoring of methane emissions. None. Some companies were not using technology to conduct leak detection and repair activities, while others conducted manual leak surveys with special cameras once or twice a year – far better than nothing, but a long way from continuous detection made possible in the digital age.

When EDF learned about this lack of continuous monitoring, we could have launched a negative ad blitz. Started a petition. Designated a villain.

We didn’t.

Instead, where some might see failure, we saw opportunity and a reason to partner. We decided to take a risk, try something bold. We decided to partner with leading companies in the oil and gas industry, technical experts, and others, to source innovative technology solutions from the marketplace and solve the methane leak problem.

We called it the Methane Detectors Challenge. Our aim was to catalyze the development and adoption of new, cost effective, continuous detection systems.

I remember sharing our vision with Mark Boling, President – V+ Development Solutions at Southwestern Energy, over breakfast. Before the food had even arrived, Mark committed to Southwestern’s participation. We had our first partner. And this was just the beginning.

A Partnership Blooms

In the months that followed, we recruited partner after partner: Apache, Anadarko, BG Group, Hess, Noble Energy, Shell, Southwestern and Statoil. We found experts willing to lend their knowledge, from places like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the University of Houston.

We launched a series of gatherings that brought stakeholders together in Houston to define the problem and develop a shared plan of action. We got to know one another and to develop a common empathy for the challenges we all shared.

At the end of our first Steering Committee meeting, one of our corporate partners came up to me and said, “Great meeting today, but one thing you should change. Don’t call it the EDF Methane Detectors Challenge. Just call it the Methane Detectors Challenge. We’re all in this together.”

In March 2014, our jointly developed request for technology proposals was out in the world, and we soon reviewed twenty proposals from four different continents. The surge of market interest was incredible, and the best of the proposals inspired excitement among all partners.

By the end of 2015, in partnership with the independent non-profit Southwest Research Institute, we had conducted rigorous indoor and outdoor controlled testing of nearly a half dozen technologies. Two technologies performed excellently, catching leaks of various sizes in various wind conditions. Next step? Industry pilots.

When Challenge Strikes

As the Methane Detectors Challenge shifted from third-party evaluation to piloting, there were increased expectations of our oil and gas partners. They had already helped inform the project’s direction and shared invaluable technical input about their technology needs. The next step was a higher bar – purchasing one or more units and committing organizational resources for pilot testing.

And then a challenge struck.

In 2015, the oil and gas commodity markets fell off a cliff. Oil nose-dived from over $100 a barrel to as low as $29 a barrel. Natural gas prices crashed. Before we knew it, our partners were making layoffs, in some cases as large as 40%, and cutting capital expenditure by as much as 80% for the year ahead.

As the markets sunk and companies down-sized, our effort became much more challenging, but the foundation of trust and the value of our common mission remained unchanged. And so we persevered.

Over the course of 2016, dialogues continued between the leading entrepreneurs and a number of our industry partners. The unglamorous, but necessary issues were resolved: contracts, prices, disclosure and data sharing agreements.

And then one day, I came into my office to find a note from my colleague. “We have a deal”, it said. A large energy producer and Methane Detectors Challenge partner, Statoil, agreed to purchase a methane detection system and host a pilot with Colorado based start-up Quanta3.

Weeks later, we got more good news. Following a successful pilot test, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) (an enthusiastic recent addition to the Methane Detectors Challenge), agreed to send a device from Acutect, the other leading entrepreneur, to an operating facility in California for real-world testing.

In praise of an unexpected partnership

In the coming months, we will learn much more about how the technologies developed for the Methane Detectors Challenge perform in the trials with Statoil, PG&E, and likely others. It’s too soon to know whether these technologies will provide the needed breakthrough for continuous methane detection, whether they will require additional development, or whether other advances from the marketplace will propel methane management forward.

But it’s not too soon to appreciate this unexpected partnership.

pge-methane-sensor-3828-300dpiWe have demonstrated that there is a vibrant global marketplace of entrepreneurs eager for the chance to accelerate a clean energy future and willing to take risks along the way. And, we have shown that diverse groups can come together over a shared vision.

Most of all, I hope we have proven that even in this era of divisiveness, partnerships are not just possible, they are powerful. Our door is always open to new partners.

 

EDF is grateful to our partners and hope the Methane Detectors Challenge is the beginning of something even bigger.


Follow @RatnerBen on Twitter


 

The Value of Pursuing a Rational Middle in Polarized Times

rational-middleAt Energy Dialogues’ North American Gas Forum last month, I had the opportunity to participate on a panel moderated by Gregory Kallenberg of the Rational Middle. While the panel pre-dated the presidential election, the topic of constructive engagement through rational discourse is now more important than ever.

We explored how environmental groups, industry, and other stakeholders need to come together to rationally discuss and collaboratively act on the challenges of meeting rising energy demand while addressing real and growing environmental risks.

The still principally fossil-based energy system, which includes natural gas, is not the only cause of climate change, but it is the largest. And so a range of stakeholders, from protesters holding signs, to investors with a long term interest in the future of natural gas, to industry consumers, are looking with increasing criticism at fossil fuels. That was true before the election, and it’s true today. They’re asking: How can we reconcile the environment we want to protect for the future with the traditional energy and feedstock resources we are using now?

Unfortunately, industry, when pressed with concerns and asked to act, has often come up short. For example, with precious few exceptions, oil and natural gas companies have declined to set quantitative methane reduction targets – of their own choosing, and for their own product. And they have declined to join their counterparts’ support for a 2 degree limit on temperature rise. Too often, industry has failed to engage with the real concerns of their customers and communities.

But there’s a better way.

As Sarah Sandberg, from the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, said on the panel, “You’re either at the table or on the menu.” As panelist Michael Crothers from Shell observed, industry must engage directly and responsively with the legitimate climate concerns of the general public. And they’re right.

At Environmental Defense Fund, we work to create opportunities for diverse stakeholders to come to the table and have the conversations that feed the actions – whether establishing public policy, catalyzing technology innovation, or making best practice standard practice – to address environmental challenges and protect our future.

There have been bright spots of industry leadership, like energy companies joining the table in Colorado to help craft the first methane regulations, or Shell Canada supporting Alberta’s new climate strategy, including a methane goal backed by regulations. Unfortunately, such constructive engagements have been the exception to the rule. All too often, industry’s response to environmental concerns and opportunities has amounted to “Just Say No”.

A better response? “Just Say How.” For example:

  • How will operators demonstrate that they hear and are addressing in practical terms, the air and groundwater pollution concerns of the 15 million Americans who live within a mile of a well?
  • How will industry leaders acknowledge and finally engage on public policy to reduce their contribution to climate change?
  • How will they make unnecessary methane emissions a thing of the past, by finding and fixing leaks?
  • How will the companies that do step up and lead on these issues maximize the competitive advantage of being cleaner companies in a world that demands it?

Let’s hope industry can take the real issues head on and start showing how we can make positive changes by working together. Pressure on industry is not going away, and rational engagement can help cut a productive path through polarization.

America knows better: Addressing climate change is good business

President-elect Donald Trump made claims of his own business smarts a cornerstone of his campaign. Vote for him, the logic went, and send a first-rate businessman to the Oval Office to apply business acumen to make America great. Unfortunately, Trump’s actions to date on climate and energy – notably charging a climate change denier with leading the EPA transition and signaling desire to abandon the historic Paris climate accords – send a message of business obliviousness.

In contrast, a smart business approach would embrace tackling greenhouse gas emissions and supporting clean energy. Here are four reasons why:

  1. Create American jobs – The opportunity to create new American jobs in the transition to clean energy is tremendous. There are now more jobs in solar energy than in coal mining, and the number of solar jobs has grown more than 20 percent in each of the last three years. States like Florida and Nevada are bountiful in sun and can contribute to American energy self-sufficiency.Moreover, just as smart action to nurture domestic clean energy can accelerate jobs in the renewable sector, there are jobs on the line helping the oil and gas industry reduce its air pollution in a cost effective way. Environmental Defense Fund found that there are over 70 American firms employing Americans to help keep potent methane emissions in natural gas pipelines and out of the atmosphere. These jobs, thriving in states like Texas and Pennsylvania, are mainly small business and above average wages – exactly what we all want to see more of. Of course, it’s a competitive global economy, and taking our foot off the pedal in creating green jobs could well cede the space to others like China, which already leads the United States in clean energy investment. Whatever a politician’s personal views on climate change, it is undeniable that global demand is growing for clean energy solutions. Growing demand means growing commercial opportunity for the United States in terms of innovation and exports. But only if we seize it.
  1. Listen to leading American businesses – Savvy business people listen to each other. So Mr. Trump should be interested to learn that 154 American businesses supported the American Businesses Act on Climate Pledge in the run-up to the Paris climate accords. These businesses are a part of the backbone of the American economy, employing nearly 11 million people across all 50 states, with a then market capitalization of over $7 trillion. Participating companies of particular interest: 21st Century Fox, Dupont, Wal-Mart, even a name that will be familiar to any casino magnate – MGM Resorts.These companies not only voiced support for a strong Paris outcome, they committed to increase their low-carbon investments in line with the direction of America’s leadership. Pulling out the rug from American businesses investing in low-carbon would send a destabilizing signal to the market. More recently, 365 companies including Unilever, Intel, General Mills and others reinforced that “implementing the Paris Agreement will enable and encourage businesses and investors to turn the billions of dollars in existing low-carbon investments into the trillions of dollars the world needs to bring clean energy and prosperity to all”. In sum, the overwhelming voice of businesses who have weighed in on the Paris talks are supportive of climate action. This business groundswell cannot be ignored. Nor should Trump ignore his own prior signing of a 2009 letter that failure to act on climate and the environment would cause “catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity and our planet.”
  1. It hits home – Continued American leadership on climate change can help mitigate physical risks to some of Mr. Trump’s most cherished investments, for example the Mar-a-Lago golf club in Palm Beach. NOAA found that “tidal flooding is increasing in frequency within the U.S. coastal communities due to sea level rise from climate change and local land subsidence.”Just a week before the election, the Palm Beach Daily News reported that the local Shore Protection Board unanimously recommended a six-figure “coastal vulnerability evaluation” as flooding has remained long after high tide in certain cases.
  1. Voters want clean energy – One of many things that will change for Donald Trump is that going from CEO to President means having a boss – actually about 300 of million of them. A recent Gallup poll found that 64% of Americans worry “a fair amount” or “a great deal” about climate change, an increase from last year, and including 84% of Democrats, 64% of independents, and 40% of Republicans. Clean energy is also wildly popular, with over 80% of Americans saying they support increased wind and solar, according to a recent Pew Poll.

Early on the campaign trail, Donald Trump often used his association with his alma mater, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, as Exhibit A in establishing his business smarts. Political leaders including Mr. Trump must learn from experts like Wharton’s Professor Eric Orts, who noted that moving away from President Obama’s climate change polices would come with stiff costs.

From missing out on job creation to ignoring business leaders who have studied the issue and have a stake in its resolution, and from fueling risk to Trump’s own business interests to overlooking voter desires, the case is clear that the costs are stiff indeed. Climate action is good business, and the smart money says it’s time to stay the course.

As Investors Benchmark Methane Management, Where Will Companies Stand?

Ben Ratner headshotGlobal attention on oil and gas methane emissions is taking off. The International Energy Agency has recognized that  “the potential for natural gas to play a credible role in the transition to a decarbonized energy system fundamentally depends on minimizing these [methane] emissions.” North American heads of state recently committed to reduce oil and gas methane emissions 45% by 2025. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued standards for methane from new sources, while Canada and Mexico begin executing their commitment to develop regulations necessary to achieve waste-cutting emission reductions.

With a rising wave of public and policy maker scrutiny, it’s no surprise that methane has become a hot topic in investor circles. A group of 76 investors representing $3.6T assets under management publicly supported the North American methane announcement. And a much broader set of investors, from large institutional investors to private equity, and socially responsible investors to large banks, are turning their attention to reading up on the issue and engaging operator management in quiet but important conversations on managing this rising risk. As leading global asset management company Allianz Global noted to its clients, methane emissions are “the next frontier for the Oil & Gas industry” and there is an “urgent need to act."

EDF has long recognized the power of stakeholders with an economic incentive to drive progress that helps people and nature prosper. That’s why we are devoting a growing effort to educate oil and gas investors on why methane risk matters and what they can do to address it through constructive engagement with operators across the world.

In a post-Paris, carbon constrained world where investors constantly demand more and better information on all manner of corporate responses to climate risk, it’s only a matter of time until investors have the data at their fingertips to use the quality of methane management as one additional input in decision making processes, even including which companies to buy or sell.

If that seems like a stretch, just consider: an operator managing methane aggressively is better poised for smooth regulatory compliance, while also reaping operational efficiencies through waste reduction, providing evidence they can be part of the transition to a lower carbon energy economy, showing neighbors they are helping to reduce air pollution, and even appealing to top talent in an environmentally conscious workforce.

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In the meantime, EDF has released a new resource in partnership with the Principles for Responsible Investment: “An Investor’s Guide to Methane: Engaging with Oil and Gas Companies to Manage a Rising Risk”, which builds on our landmark report “Rising Risk: Improving Methane Disclosure in the Oil and Gas Industry.” While the primary audience is investors who represent growing demand for improved methane management (and indeed gave us the idea for creating a guide in the first place), the Guide is public for a reason – operators who want to get ahead of the curve can review it for themselves.

Our Guide is based on three simple ideas. 1) Methane poses a material risk, in the form of financial, reputational, and regulatory risk. 2) Managing the risk well requires directly measuring emissions, transparently reporting the plan of action and its results, and actively reducing emissions. 3) Continuous improvement is key: each company can advance along the spectrum from beginner, to intermediate, to advanced, on each dimension of measure, report, reduce.

As operators review the Guide, they can use it to benchmark where they are today, prepare for dialogue with investors, and develop an action plan for continuous improvement. Whether motivated by investor relations, operational enhancements, regulatory positioning, or simply doing the right thing, we hope operators will find the guide to be a useful tool. Competitive advantage is at stake, and there’s no time to waste.


Follow Ben Ratner on Twitter, @RatnerBen


 

3 Keys for the American Petroleum Institute’s New Climate Task Force

The climate change discussion is percolating even in surprising places. The latest sign: the American Petroleum Institute’s recent formation of an internal task force on climate change. Reportedly the new task force’s mandate is to revisit API’s approach to this crucial issue, going into an election year and with ever greater scrutiny on fossil fuels.

AdobeStock_56840116It is too soon to know whether the task force will rubber stamp a business-as-usual approach defined by glossing over climate concerns and attacking policy measures, or chart a new path instead.

But if the task force is serious about a fresh look at the issue, here are three keys for the task force to consider as it ponders the future of API on climate. Read more

Three Ways Methane Standards Can Help the Oil and Gas Sector Rebuild

A massive wave of market and societal forces is changing the oil and gas industry. Low commodity prices are driving out weaker players with excessive debt, and forcing those that remain to become leaner and more efficient. As climate change effects worsen and countries move to fulfill their commitments from the Paris climate agreement, public scrutiny of oil and natural gas and their impacts only intensifies.

The question is not will industry change to meet these challenges — it’s how. It’s about what opportunities can propel industry to come back stronger out of the depths of the commodity slide, as a leaner, cleaner industry standing on firm ground that it can play a meaningful role as societies work to transition to lower-carbon economies.

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While natural gas remains a fact of life, and switching from coal to natural gas has helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions, scientific research has demonstrated that potent methane emissions from the oil and gas system are undermining that climate benefit. The latest U.S. inventory shows over 9 million metric tons of oil and gas methane emissions, packing the same climate impact over a 20 year timeframe as over 200 coal-fired power plants. That’s a lot of methane no matter how you slice it.

Methane standards like the rule announced today by EPA can aid industry, for three reasons: Read more

Houston: We Have Another Problem

nervous_investor2As oil and gas leaders converge on Houston for the year’s largest industry conference, CERA Week, falling oil and gas prices are understandably top of mind and a cause for concern for the industry. But there is another decline story underway in industry, one that poses a risk to the future of hydrocarbons in a carbon constrained world – a story of falling trust.

While today’s $30 oil price is disruptive in the short-term, new information on the very low level of public trust in the oil and gas industry should prompt concern from executives and investors about possible longer-term disruption to companies’ social license to operate.

The Industry’s Public Trust Problem

Recent polling conducted by KRC Research for EDF found that a mere 29 percent of Americans trust oil and gas companies to operate responsibly. Strikingly, even among Republicans, the trust rate is under 40 percent.

Digging deeper into the numbers, just 15 percent of Americans trust the oil and gas industry to be accurate in disclosing how much pollution they cause.

So what do these results mean?

They mean that a basic ingredient essential to the long-term viability of any industry – societal trust – is sorely lacking. When 197 nations agree to an ambitious framework and goal to cut greenhouse gas pollution, but very few Americans trust oil and gas operators to even disclose their pollution accurately, a collision course develops. Read more

5 Energy Trends Driving Climate Progress in 2015

Tech installing solar panels

John Rae

What a difference a year can make. Even before the last weeks tick away, 2015 stands out as a remarkable and dynamic year for climate and energy in the United States.

Read on for five bold trends that are beginning to reshape our economy – and our national discourse on climate change.

1. Investments in renewables soar

I admit it: For years, I thought renewable energy was more hype than reality. I’m happy to report that recent data proves me wrong.

In just five years, solar panel prices have fallen 80 percent, and solar capacity installed worldwide grew more than six-fold. The overall cost of solar per kilowatt-hour, meanwhile, plummeted 50 percent.

For the first time in history, energy from the sun is as cheap as traditional energy in states such as Arizona, California and Texas.

The proof is in the pudding. Apple, for example, recently signed an $848-million power agreement with a solar provider – bypassing the electric grid. A deal of this magnitude shows where solar is today, and where it is headed. Read more

Forum Shows Government and Business Can Work Together to Tackle Oil & Gas Methane Emissions

powering-the-economyThere is often staunch disagreement between industry and policymakers on how to address pollution. But an event last week convening business leaders, federal and state officials and other stakeholders showed that there’s at least one idea on which they can agree and work together: the feasibility of reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.

Here are four perspectives shared at this event that give me hope we can solve the large, but addressable problem of methane pollution from the oil and gas industry if we take a fact-based, collaborative approach. That would be great news in itself, and powerful precedent for tackling the broader climate opportunities ahead.

Environmental regulations are not a zero sum game. Martha Rudolph, director of Environmental Programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, was on the front lines when Colorado proposed the nation’s first direct regulation of methane pollution from the oil and gas industry. At the event, she shared her state’s powerful example of unlikely allies coming together to protect climate and communities in a way that makes business sense.

Instead of tales of industry resistance, she shared a history of business and other stakeholders coming together with state policy makers to formulate and implement cost-effective regulations that will cut 100,000 tons of methane emissions – the climate equivalent of taking over 1.8 million cars off the road. Rudolph reports that the rules have not been challenged in court, and to date, her office had not heard complaints about compliance being difficult or costly . Noble, Anadarko, and Encana supported strong rules at the front end, and even the industry trade associations have rolled up their sleeves and set up trainings to ease rule implementation. Read more

Faith-Based Investors Call on Exxon, Valero and Others to Support Methane Regulations

Since the president announced in January a national goal of reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas industry nearly in half by 2025, an outpouring of voices has supported the move. Now, EPA has proposed rules to help meet that target, and we’ve seen another wave of support – everyone from editorial boards in the heart of oil and gas country to massive investors like California’s pension funds has recognized that the rules are a manageable, commonsense means for reducing methane pollution.

ICCR-logoThe one voice that’s been silent? The companies with the opportunity to adopt the proven, cost-effective technologies and services to not only reduce pollution but also prevent the waste of the very energy resource they’re producing. Now another voice has emerged to make the case directly to these companies that it’s worth constructively engaging in the rulemaking process: the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), a group of shareholders dedicated to promoting environmentally and socially responsible corporate practices.

Several shareholders from ICCR’s coalition sent letters today to dozens of energy companies in which they invest, voicing their concern about the impact of methane emissions on the climate and public health. As You Sow, BCAM, Mercy Investments, Miller Howard, the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, Trillium Asset Management, and others made their case to companies whose shares they own, including some of the biggest names in the business, like Chesapeake Energy, ConocoPhillips, Exxon, Kinder Morgan, and Valero.

Specifically, the investors asked the companies to file public comments on EPA’s proposed methane rules, sharing the companies’ data and experience with methane monitoring and management and providing perspective on how the methane rules can be designed to reduce emissions cost effectively. They also urged the companies to guide their powerful trade associations –which have been some of the most vocal opponents of the rules – to engage honestly and transparently in the rulemaking process. Read more