US equipment can’t cut methane emissions

When Sharon Wilson pulled up to the BP site in Texas last June, the production tanks were towering over the windy lawn about 60 miles southeast of San Antonio. Cows and pump trucks lined both sides of the road.

All looks peaceful. But when Wilson turned on the high-tech video camera, a startling image emerged: A long plume of black feathers poured from a flare tube. Her camera, designed to detect hydrocarbons, revealed what appeared to be a stream of methane – a powerful climate-warming gas, spewing from the device itself that is said to suppress emissions. so.

“It’s very discouraging and discouraging, but mostly very angry,” said Wilson, an advocate for Earthworks, which promotes alternatives to fossil fuels. “Our government is not taking the action that needs to be taken.”

Methane is the main ingredient in natural gas. Measured over a 20-year period, it has 80 times the warming power of the climate than carbon dioxide, the scientists say. And according to the International Energy Agency, methane is responsible for about 30% of the global warming that has occurred since the Industrial Revolution. Aerial surveys have recorded large amounts of methane drifting away from oil and gas fields in the United States and beyond.

That’s an issue the Biden administration sought to attack in the recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act. One of the provisions of the law threatens to impose fines of up to $1,500 per tonne of methane emitted, to be imposed on the worst polluters. Perhaps most importantly, the law provides $1.55 billion in grants to companies to upgrade equipment to prevent emissions more effectively – the equipment could, in theory, help operators avoid being hit. punish.

However, some of the best equipment to reduce emissions has been installed on oil and gas infrastructure, including at the BP site that Wilson filmed. And critics say such equipment doesn’t capture most of the methane and casts doubt on whether the Biden plan will go as far as to fix the problem.

What Wilson saw at the BP site was an unlit flame. This is one of the types of equipment that the EPA recommends companies consider installing to reduce methane emissions. Like a tall tube, a flame is supposed to ignite the methane before it can escape. The flame usually ignites from the top of the flare.

But in this case, the fire went out, so the methane spilled out of the pipe. The flare’s mechanisms are supposed to alert the operator if it stops working. That didn’t happen in this case, according to a report by the Texas Environmental Quality Commission.

“Energy companies have made commitments, but I have to tell you, I haven’t seen anything from a practical standpoint that makes me believe there is any reality to cutting on the ground. quality inspector for the Texas Environmental Quality Commission. “Maybe they’re making progress, but are they making enough progress to slow climate change? I don’t think so.”

The methane eruptions that Wilson discovered were among more than a dozen such scenes she recorded over three days at Eagle Ford Shale, an oil and gas field in south Texas. Methane spills from flares, storage tanks, vapor recovery units and compressors have not been lit or broken. She noticed it exiting at sites owned by companies including BP and Marathon Oil, both of which are committed to reducing methane emissions.

“They have the technology, but for some reason, whether they don’t maintain it, whether the technology doesn’t work, I don’t know, but if it doesn’t work,” Wilson said.

BP did not respond to questions about the methane leak that Wilson recorded. The company says it plans to eliminate frequent flare-ups in US shore operations by 2025 and is advocating policies to reduce methane emissions.

Marathon Oil countered that it had violated any regulations. A spokeswoman said the company recognizes the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the global climate and prioritizes caring for the environment.

Sometimes, methane is released because the equipment designed to contain it is not calibrated or maintained properly. Emissions are not stopped immediately when new equipment is installed. Companies still have to invest in proper system design and ongoing monitoring and maintenance of equipment. This requires money and staff, something experts say many companies overlook.

The Biden administration has yet to identify the type of device it proposes. But the EPA, which is working with the administration on the law’s methane reduction program, has recommended technologies to reduce methane emissions. Whether that device really succeeds in limiting emissions is an open question.

“There’s a lot of technology, but the reality is it just doesn’t work,” Doty said.

It also often happens with another type of equipment that the EPA recommends: vapor recovery devices. These are piping and seal systems that capture methane before it can escape from the storage tank. In Doty’s field work, which spans decades, he estimates that he has seen vapor recovery units leak methane or other hydrocarbons 75% to 85% of the time.

And hydrocarbons like methane, because they are corrosive, will inevitably degrade the tanks, pipes and equipment that are supposed to contain them.

“All of these things are prone to leaks — that’s it,” says Coyne Gibson, who has spent about two decades as a test engineer for oil and gas equipment. “It’s mechanics. And there really isn’t any way to avoid it.”

One reason it’s difficult for industry to control methane emissions is that many of the leaks come from the nation’s vast gas distribution network. Millions of miles of adjacent pipelines cannot be completely monitored. What’s more, Gibson said, pipelines are often buried, making leaks harder to detect.

Antoine Halff, chief analyst at Kayrros, an energy analysis firm, said that gas distribution network, which includes pipelines and compressor stations, is responsible for most of the methane emissions in the energy industry. quantity. Using satellite data, Kayrros identified a gas compression station – which regulates the pressure of gas to move it through pipes – that was emitting methane continuously for eight days.

“It’s all too common a way,” Halff said.

Some large companies have invested in infrared cameras, like Wilson’s, that can detect methane leaks at facilities. They use them on the ground, or on drones or planes.

This process can help operators find and repair leaks. But it is usually only done periodically, with the cameras not running continuously. Every few months, some companies will send a team with infrared cameras to check for leaks from the ground or helicopters.

However, most of the time there is no such supervision. Leaks or even planned methane releases can happen during these periods, like when companies open a section of pipeline to release methane before repairs are carried out. Placing personnel to continuously survey the nation’s 3 million miles of natural gas pipelines could be costly.

Malfunctioning flares like the one Wilson found are also a major cause of methane pollution. The outbreak is believed to ignite 98% of the methane that would otherwise shoot directly into the atmosphere. But whether due to malfunction or poor design, flares are releasing five times as much methane into the atmosphere, according to a University of Michigan study.

“Flames are often emitted outwards,” said David Lyon, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “They’re not going to be lit and let off the gas. Or they’re not going to burn the gas properly. So that’s a really big source of methane. And I often think that the operators don’t know that the flame is open to the flames. disabled.”

The Environmental Protection Agency is writing rules on methane mitigation that will be more detailed than what will be required of companies starting in 2024 under the Inflation Reduction Act.

The American Petroleum Institute, the main lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, says the intensity of methane emissions has fallen by nearly 60 percent across the nation’s main producing regions between 2011 and 2020. But the companies companies based their reported methane emissions on estimates, not actual measurements, another custom the Inflation Reduction Act seeks to change.

Climate scientists have shown that, using satellite data, methane emissions are often two or three times higher than what companies report. Under the new law, companies will have to actually measure and report their methane emissions. But it is not yet clear how such a measurement program would work.

“We and many others in the field have repeatedly shown a huge gap between countries and companies reporting and what can actually be detected,” Halff said.

Even so, he says there’s reason to hope that the methane regulations in the Inflation Reduction Act will make some difference.

“Emissions continue to rise,” he said. “We are going in the wrong direction, but the potential, the conditions, to change course still seems to be here.”

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