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Houston expert: Moving the needle on methane emissions

Methane emissions are rising—about 25 percent in the past 20 years, and still going up— but they are difficult to measure and track. What can be done? Photo via Canva

Here’s the bad news. In 2019, methane (CH4) accounted for about 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, such as those related to natural gas extraction and livestock farming. Methane doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, but is more efficient at trapping radiation; over a 100-year period, the comparative impact of CH4 is 25 times greater than CO2. To put it another way, one metric ton of methane equals 84 metric tons of carbon dioxide (see chart). Finally, while methane emissions are rising—about 25 percent in the past 20 years, and still going up—they are difficult to measure and track.

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And here’s the good news. Five industries—agriculture, oil and gas, coal mining, solid waste management, and wastewater—account for almost all of human-made methane emissions. There are practical things these industries can do, right now, at reasonable cost and using existing technologies, that could cut emissions by almost half (46 percent) in 2050. That said, it will be easier for some industries than for others. Take agriculture. Most of its emissions come from cows and sheep, which produce methane during digestion; in fact, animals account for more carbon dioxide equivalent (CO₂e) emissions than every country except China, according to a recent McKinsey report. Dealing with billions of animals, dispersed on farms small and large all over the world is, to put it mildly, complicated. Certain kinds of feed additives, for example, can reduce the formation of methane, cow by cow—but is expensive ($50 per tCO₂e and up). This add costs to farmers, without any economic benefits to them, and makes food more expensive. That’s a tough sell.

On the other hand, the energy industry accounts for 20 to 25 percent of methane emissions; its operations are fairly consolidated, and there are significant resources and expertise at hand. Plus, in many cases, there are genuine economic opportunities. For example, plugging methane leaks means less gas gets lost. Large volumes of methane emissions that are now treated as a waste could be recovered and sold as natural gas—something that is not always economic to do, but could be as gas prices rise or conditions change. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the industry flares approximately 90 Mt of methane per year, losing $12 billion to $19 billion in value. Over time, too, normal maintenance and upgrading strategies can also reduce emissions, for example, by replacing pumps with instrument air systems. There are many different ways to prevent losses in upstream production, including leak detection and repair, equipment electrification, and vapor recovery units.

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In the short term, meaning over the next decade, the IEA says that these and other changes could reduce emissions 40 percent (at 2019 gas prices), while more than paying for themselves. In effect, there is low-hanging fruit out there. The full potential, according to McKinsey, is 75 percent fewer emissions by 2050, but to get there, things get more expensive, somewhere in the range of $20 per tCO₂e.

Naturally, oil and gas players are not eager to embrace added costs, and these will eventually be passed on to consumers. But the industry is looking at a future that is carbon-constrained in one way or another, either through a price on carbon, or regulation, or both. It might well be that addressing methane emissions provides a way to decarbonize its operations at reasonable cost. And while there is little brand equity to natural gas at the moment—no one shops for it by name—it is possible that in decades to come, companies that can show they are producing low- or zero-carbon gas might be able to command a price premium.

Much of the oil and gas industry doesn’t disagree with this analysis. The International Group of Liquefied Natural Gas Importers, a trade group, has made the case that “abating greenhouse gas emissions (from wellhead to terminal outlet), in particular fugitive methane emissions,” is important. On the oil side, the American Petroleum Institute, as part of its climate action plan, has called for the development of methane detection technologies, and reducing flaring to zero: “We support cost-effective policies and direct regulation that achieve methane emission reductions from new and existing sources across the supply chain.” And the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, whose companies account for almost 30 percent of global production, are also on board, calling the reduction of methane emissions to near zero “a top priority.” Back in 2017, the Houston Chronicle, the home paper of the Texas oil and gas industry, argued for better practices: “If Texas wants the world to buy our LNG exports, a sign of environmental good faith would go a long way.” And in fact there has been progress: the OGCI estimates that methane emissions are have declined 33 percent from 2017-20.

On the whole, then, this looks like one area of climate policy where there is broad consensus. Methane matters. According to one science paper, dealing with it “could slow the global-mean rate of near-term decadal warming by around 30 percent.” Just the oil-and-gas industry’s share, then, could make a measurable difference. I am not saying getting methane emissions way down will be easy, but the industry knows what to do and how to do it. It is in its interest, and that of the planet, to do so.


Scott Nyquist is a senior advisor at McKinsey & Company and vice chairman, Houston Energy Transition Initiative of the Greater Houston Partnership. The views expressed herein are Nyquist's own and not those of McKinsey & Company or of the Greater Houston Partnership. This article originally ran on LinkedIn on October 21, 2021.

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A View From HETI

A View From UH

A Rice University professor studied the Earth's carbon cycle in the Rio Madre de Dios to shed light on current climate conditions. Photo courtesy of Mark Torres/Rice University

Carbon cycles through Earth, its inhabitants, and its atmosphere on a regular basis, but not much research has been done on that process and qualifying it — until now.

In a recent study of a river system extending from the Peruvian Andes to the Amazon floodplains, Rice University’s Mark Torres and collaborators from five institutions proved that that high rates of carbon breakdown persist from mountaintop to floodplain.

“The purpose of this research was to quantify the rate at which Earth naturally releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and find out whether this process varies across different geographic locations,” Torres says in a news release.

Torres published his findings in a study published in PNAS, explaining how they used rhenium — a silvery-gray, heavy transition metal — as a proxy for carbon. The research into the Earth’s natural, pre-anthropogenic carbon cycle stands to benefit humanity by providing valuable insight to current climate challenges.

“This research used a newly-developed technique pioneered by Robert Hilton and Mathieu Dellinger that relies on a trace element — rhenium — that’s incorporated in fossil organic matter,” Torres says. “As plankton die and sink to the bottom of the ocean, that dead carbon becomes chemically reactive in a way that adds rhenium to it.”

The research was done in the Rio Madre de Dios basin and supported by funding from a European Research Council Starting Grant, the European Union COFUND/Durham Junior Research Fellowship, and the National Science Foundation.

“I’m very excited about this tool,” Torres said. “Rice students have deployed this same method in our lab here, so now we can make this kind of measurement and apply it at other sites. In fact, as part of current research funded by the National Science Foundation, we are applying this technique in Southern California to learn how tectonics and climate influence the breakdown of fossil carbon.”

Torres also received a three-year grant from the Department of Energy to study soil for carbon storage earlier this year.

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