Heath Consultants' methane-measuring drone
Dr. Jason Gu was still a graduate student when he developed the technology behind SenSevere, a start-up that creates laser-based gas sensors for use in heavy industry and power plants. Today, he’s working to apply this technology to methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, making him one of the many entrepreneurs developing solutions to tackle the problem. His fascination with innovation isn’t just making his clients more efficient—it may also be saving the planet.
The hidden cost of methane
Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a powerful pollutant responsible for a quarter of the global warming we feel today. The oil and gas industry releases 7 million tons of it into the atmosphere every year through emissions from oil and gas fields and associated pipelines, resulting in over a billion dollars’ worth of wasted American energy resources. And, toxic chemicals like benzene, a known carcinogen, can accompany methane emissions, posing a potential threat to public health.
“The industry is beginning to become more sensitized to the fact that methane is an aggressive greenhouse gas,” said James Armstrong, president of Apogee Scientific, a Colorado-based methane mitigation company. For more than 15 years, Apogee has manufactured a methane detection system that uses a vacuum and infrared sensors and can be mounted to trucks, ATVs and helicopters to identify leaks in the field. “If you find the leaks and repair them, you’re not only helping the environment…you’re extending the resource.” Read more
Bill Gates, in an interview with The Atlantic, reminded us that if Thomas Edison were alive today, he’d probably recognize a lot of our energy infrastructure – batteries and most coal plants, for example. Gates argued in the interview that we need to drastically speed up the pace of innovation to bring our energy infrastructure out of the Victorian era. But how do we change how we make and use energy? It touches everything we do, but in less than a decade we will be living, working, and traveling differently.
That’s where I –and EDF – come in. I joined EDF this fall after working as a lawyer, consultant and accelerator for business-social collaborations, and I’ve found that it takes all kinds of skills and experiences to set ambitious targets and turn the impossible into the inevitable. From energy retrofits for churches to starting a clean energy incubator with global energy companies, I’ve attacked the challenge of achieving a low-carbon future from many angles. I’ve been drawing on all of that experience since joining EDF, at what’s proving to be an exciting time for climate change leadership.
Methane: a challenge we have to tackle today
One area where we know we have to innovate – like people stranded on a desert island – is methane emissions from oil and gas. Methane is the most powerful greenhouse gas that almost no one has heard of. And more importantly from a climate perspective, methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are cheap to eliminate, if you can find them. The recently-announced regulations on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry won’t take us all the way to the 40-45% reduction in methane emissions the administration has set as a priority. We need action at hundreds of thousands of oil and gas facilities, and that’s just for U.S. onshore oil and gas. Worldwide, methane leaks amount to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2012, or the equivalent of 40% of the total CO2 emissions from burning coal.
How do you innovate fast enough to attack this challenge? One approach we at EDF have taken with the Methane Detectors Challenge is to identify a need – invisible methane leaks – and envision a tool that didn’t yet exist that could enable the action we need – operators finding and fixing leaks faster. The ultimate goal is to make tools like that a reality, and bring to market continuous methane detection systems that are so affordable they can be deployed throughout the oil and gas supply chain. Read more
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
People often think of the energy sector as a great place to find jobs, but some of the best, most stable job opportunities in the sector aren’t what you’d think. They’re not dedicated to resource production, but to minimizing the millions of tons of natural gas and associated pollution that leaks as the product is produced and delivered, wasting resources and causing a serious environmental problem.
Each year, more than 7 million tons of methane – the main component of natural gas and a powerful pollutant – escapes from oil and gas operations. These emissions pack the same short-term warming punch as pollution from 160 coal-fired power plants, and equal enough wasted natural gas to heat and cook meals for 5 million American homes.
Companies across the country are already harnessing the power of American innovation to solve this problem, creating new job opportunities in the process. And, a growing trend toward stronger state and federal safeguards to standardize methane reduction best practices is putting more wind in the sails of this growing industry.
Many of the positions being created are skilled, high-paying jobs for workers such as engineers and welders, according to a 2014 Datu Research report on the emerging methane mitigation industry. But these companies need a variety of other positions filled too, from sales to accounting to general labor.
Many of these companies have their roots in traditional equipment manufacturing, such as valves and sealing technologies that keep industrial systems running as efficiently as possible. Others, such as makers of optical gas imaging, are on the cutting edge of new technologies that allow users to identify methane leaks that are invisible to the naked eye. Read more
There 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
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.
The 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
As the dog days of summer expire and football season approaches, many sports fans will anxiously scan their favorite team’s rosters for training camp injuries–finding everything from the innocuous, to the dreaded torn Achilles that already sidelined several pro players for the season’s start.
When it comes to the energy industry, methane emissions loom as the Achilles heel of natural gas. On the surface, natural gas appears to many as a star American player – abundant and cleaner burning than coal.
But unchecked methane emissions, which are 84 times more potent than CO2, undercut natural gas’ climate change performance.
This risk has grown particularly acute because the recently finalized Clean Power Plan, which targets carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, casts natural gas as part of a viable near-term strategy to win the climate game.
The spotlight on natural gas’ performance is only growing as more viewers tune in.
The difference is, while there is no sure-fire way to prevent an Achilles tear on the athletic field, we have the means at our fingertips to dramatically reduce methane emissions and help natural gas become a stronger player that puts more points on the board for the economy and climate.
New EPA methane rules announced Tuesday can be an important step if finalized in strong form, yielding four business benefits: Read more
California public school teachers. Religious charities. New York police officers and firefighters.
What do all of these groups have in common? Investors representing them — who manage $1.5 trillion in retirees, current employees’, and others assets – are standing together and calling for strong rules limiting harmful methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. This level of outpouring – from diversified investors with holdings in the oil and gas industry – represents five times the support investors expressed for methane rules last year. A trend is emerging.
The investors, including the largest retirement funds in California and New York, issued a powerful statement in support of the president’s methane proposal aimed at cutting emissions nearly in half in a decade. A centerpiece is regulation of methane, the primary ingredient in natural gas, which has over 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it’s released and is responsible for 25 percent of the warming we are feeling today.
From their vantage point as long-term stakeholders, the “serious threat” methane poses to climate stability compels them, as fiduciaries, to support action to cut emissions and avoid near term threats to “infrastructure and economic harm that will weaken not only the companies we invest in, but the nation as a whole.” Market pressure like that is difficult to ignore. Read more
Pump jacks lined up in Oklahoma. (Credit: Kool Kats)
Six large European oil and gas companies recently announced a commitment to engage on climate policy, calling for a price on carbon. The now-emerging picture of their coordinated corporate talking points, however, leaves no doubt that promotion of natural gas is a core part of the group’s position.
Is this development a beneficial push to help the planet transition to a low carbon economy – or just another marketing campaign? The truth, so far, lies somewhere in between.
Here are the good, the bad and the ugly highlights of what we’ve learned over the past week and what it all means.
The good: Establishing a carbon price and cutting carbon dioxide emissions
Make no mistake about it: The world’s leading economies need to establish a price and limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and leadership from the private sector is instrumental in achieving that policy objective.
For large companies such as Shell, BP and Statoil to join forces and unequivocally state, as they now have, that a price on carbon should be a “key element” of climate policy frameworks is a refreshing boost to pre-Paris United Nations climate talks.
It is a potentially powerful validation that even some of the world’s largest corporate emitters see an upside to carbon pricing and will weigh in to make it a reality.
As to promoting natural gas a solution, it is well documented that in many cases natural gas will replace coal for power generation – a shift already underway in the United States and partly responsible for driving down carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Read more
Europe’s largest oil companies are reportedly working together on a policy strategy leading up to this year’s international climate talks in Paris. It’s nice to hear that some of the biggest players in the global oil and gas industry want to engage in solutions, but it remains to be seen if they will take the action needed to effectively tackle some of our most immediate climate threats – or to seize a major untapped opportunity.
That opportunity is methane. The highly potent greenhouse gas that’s been largely ignored until recently represents a solution for making real and immediate progress to slow warming. So will the group of oil companies sign on to tackle methane as a big part of its strategy, or are they going to ignore it?
Methane, the primary ingredient in natural gas, has over 80 times the warming power of CO2 and is responsible for 25 percent of the warming we are feeling today. That means tackling methane is an essential piece of the puzzle in making a real impact on greenhouse emissions. Read more