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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Source: McKinsey.com

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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Source: McKinsey.com

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.

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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.

Lignium combats greenhouse gasses with a green fuel that boasts an enviably low carbon footprint. Photo courtesy of Lignium

Why this growing Chilean clean energy company moved its HQ to Houston

future of farming

In Houston, air pollution is usually more of an abstract concept than a harsh reality. But in parts of Chile, the consequences of heating homes with wet wood are catching up to residents.

“Given all the contamination, there are times kids aren’t allowed to go to school. The air pollution is really affecting people’s health,” says Agustín Ríos, COO of Lignium Energy.

Additionally, the methane and nitrous oxide produced by cattle farming are a problem. But Lignium Energy, an international company started in Chile and now headquartered in Houston’s Greentown Labs, has a solution that can solve both problems by upending the latter.

“There’s a lack of solutions with the problem of manure. Methane gases are destroying our planet,” says CEO and co-founder Enrique Guzmán. He goes on to say that most solutions currently being developed are expensive and complex. But not Lignium Energy’s method, invented by co-founder José Antonio Caraball.

Caraball has patented an extraordinarily simple concept. Lignium separates the solid from liquid excretions, then cleans the solid to generate a hay-like biomass. Biomass refers to organic matter that can be used as fuel. What Lignium makes from the cattle evacuations is a clean, odorless and highly calorific biomass.

Essentially, Lignium combats greenhouse gasses with a green fuel that boasts an enviably low carbon footprint. “Our process is very cheap and very simple. That’s why we are a great solution,” explains Guzmán.

Caraball, an industrial engineer, came up with the idea six years ago, says Guzmán. Five years ago, he began working with the company, one year ago, Guzmán and Ríos picked up and moved to Houston.

“We decided to move out of Chile due to market size,” says Ríos. However, the product is already being sold to consumers in its homeland.

Why Houston? The reason was twofold. As an energy company, Ríos says that they wanted to be in “the energy capital of the world.” But Texas is also one of the largest sites of cattle farming on the planet. Lignium prefers to work with farms with more than 500 head to optimize harvesting the waste that becomes biomass.

With that in mind, Lignium has partnered with Southwest Regional Dairy Center in Stephenville, Texas, a little more than an hour southwest of Fort Worth, a town known as the world’s rodeo capital. The facility is associated with Texas A&M, though Guzmán says Lignium is not officially associated with the university.

Guzmán says that the company is currently hiring a team member to help Lignium figure out commercial logistics, as well as four or five other Houstonians who will help them take their product to market in the United States, and eventually around the globe. For now, he predicts that they will be able to sell to consumers in this country by early next year, if not the fourth quarter of 2023.

“We are very committed to the solution because, at the end of the day, if we do good work with the company, we are sure we can give better conditions to the cattle industry,” says Guzmán. “Then we can make a big impact on a real problem.

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

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SLB to consolidate carbon capture business in partnership

M&A moves

SLB announced its plans to combine its carbon capture business with Norway company, Aker Carbon Capture.

Upon completion of the transaction, which is expected to close by the end of the second quarter of this year, SLB will own 80 percent of the combined business and ACC will own 20 percent.

According to a SLB news release, the combined technology portfolios will accelerate the introduction of promising early-stage decarbonization technology.

“For CCUS to have the expected impact on supporting global net-zero ambitions, it will need to scale up 100-200 times in less than three decades,” Olivier Le Peuch, CEO of SLB, says in the release. “Crucial to this scale-up is the ability to lower capture costs, which often represent as much as 50-70% of the total spend of a CCUS project.

The International Energy Agency estimates that over one gigaton of CO2 every year year will need to be captured by 2030 — a figure that scales up to over six gigatons by 2050.

"We are excited to create this business with ACC to accelerate the deployment of carbon capture technologies that will shift the economics of carbon capture across high-emitting industrial sectors,” Le Peuch continues.

SLB is slated to pay NOK 4.12 billion — around $379.4 million — to own 80 percent of Aker Carbon Capture Holding AS, which owns ACC, per the news release, and SLB may also pay up to NOK 1.36 billion over the next three years, depending on business performance.

3 top DOE researchers take professor positions at University of Houston

new hires

Three top researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory have accepted joint appointments at the University of Houston.

“This strategic collaboration leverages the combined strengths of Argonne and the [university] to further critical research efforts, public-private partnerships, and educational opportunities for students in the energy transition and lead to transformational advancement of commercial scale energy industries,” Ramanan Krishnamoorti, vice president for energy and innovation at UH, says in a news release.

These appointments are part of a memorandum of understanding that Argonne, located in the Chicago area, recently signed with the Greater Houston Partnership. The agreement seeks to accelerate decarbonization efforts in the Houston area.

The three scientists appointed to positions are UH are:

  • Zach Hood, whose appointment is in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the UH Cullen College of Engineering. He’ll be hosted by Yan Yao, a UH professor who is principal investigator at the Texas Center for Superconductivity.
  • Jianlin Li, whose appointment also is in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He plans to establish a dry room facility at UH and conduct research on energy storage technologies, electrode processing, and cell manufacturing.
  • Michael Wang, the inaugural Distinguished Senior Scholar at UH’s Energy Transition Institute. His objectives include advancing research in decarbonizing the oil and gas sector through carbon management and transitioning to renewable energy sources. Wang will conduct seminars and present lectures in environmental sustainability, lifecycle, and techno-economic analysis of energy technologies, while helping Argonne tap into the university’s talent pool.

“With more than 30 years of experience, Dr. Wang brings critical tools and expertise to the UH Energy Transition Institute, which is dedicated to unlocking the transformative potential within three critical domains: hydrogen, carbon management, and circular plastics,” says Joe Powell, founding executive director of the Energy Transition Institute. “These areas not only present opportunities for reshaping the energy sector but also stand as pillars for societal sustainable development and decarbonization.”

Clean energy founder shares key takeaways from CERAWeek 2024

guest column

Earlier this month, thousands converged on Houston for one of the world’s largest energy conferences – CERAWeek 2024. For five days global leaders, CEOs, oil and gas experts, and the industry’s top stakeholders gathered to provide insight, and discuss solutions, to some of the biggest questions on the future of energy.

Just this week, on the heels of the conference, it was hugely encouraging to see the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announce up to $6 billion for 33 projects across more than 20 states to decarbonize energy-intensive industries and reduce industrial greenhouse gas emissions. The announcement underscored the vitally important, and yet largely untapped role that industrial carbon capture must play in reaching the U.S.’s overall decarbonization goals. This must include significant point-source technology onsite at hard-to-abate industrial emitters like cement, metals and chemicals. The DOE announcement makes that priority clear, with the focus of the two largest grants for cement decarbonization projects going to carbon capture, each up to $500 million.

This was one of the major takeaways at this year’s CERAWeek: despite the success of the IRA, if we are to achieve the rapid scaling required to tackle emissions coming from hard-to-abate sectors, and now is the time to move rapidly into deployment, beginning with carbon capture demonstrations at industrial sites. Through our work with Chevron on the development of a carbon capture pilot for our CycloneCC technology on a gas turbine in San Joaquin Valley, California, we are proud to be doing exactly that.

While Carbon Clean has been active in the U.S. for several years, we chose to unveil our new Houston headquarters during last year’s CERAWeek, selecting the energy capital of the world for our U.S. home. With this increased focus on industrial decarbonization, the opportunities for carbon capture deployment in the U.S. – and more specifically Greater Houston – have significantly expanded. Since first opening the U.S. headquarters in Houston last year, we have grown our headcount by two-thirds and seen U.S. inquiries for our modular, point-source carbon capture solutions skyrocket by a further 59% (and this is after the initial leap in interest following the IRA’s passage).

Still, while a lot has been accomplished over the past year, we recognize that a lot more needs to be done to meet the country’s net zero targets, particularly in the space of industrial decarbonization. This was another takeaway at this year’s CERAWeek, a recognition that many industrial leaders have adopted ambitious net-zero goals but have no plans for implementation.

In conversations with many of this year’s conference attendees, one thing became abundantly clear: yes, the IRA was a breakthrough moment that provided key incentives for companies to enter the carbon capture space and develop the kinds of decarbonization technology that will reduce emissions. However, that only gets us half of the way there: we need to foster a market for the demand of clean industrial production, using the IRA as the vehicle to create that supply. Through the allocation of credits and increased pricing power, we can generate more demand from industrial emitters to embrace the kinds of technology that will enable them to reach net-zero.

Another critical next step: when it comes to adopting local industrial carbon capture projects, accelerate permitting by letting the states decide for themselves. The EPA’s recent decision to grant Louisiana the power to approve carbon capture projects could open the door to a wave of new project applications and additional states seeking the same authority.

If you want an example of a local economy poised to greatly benefit from expanded access to industrial carbon capture, look no further than Houston. With its energy expertise and local resources, Greater Houston is uniquely positioned to take full advantage of carbon capture’s promise, which will not only reduce the region’s emissions but grow jobs.

A recent study by the EFI Foundation, supported by Carbon Clean, identified Houston as an ideal location for a new coordinated regional approach to industrial carbon capture hubs. Previously, most studies on deployment focused on decarbonizing large emitters - the EFI report is focused on small-to-midsize emitters, as they account for 25 percent of America’s industrial emissions but are often overlooked given the cost and space barriers that have historically been barriers to the mass adoption of industrial carbon capture units.

Today, there are 311 facilities in the Houston cluster that fit the bill, representing 36.6 million metric tons of capturable CO2 emissions per year. Given that the region employs nearly a third of the nation’s jobs in oil and gas extraction alone, allowing multiple local emitters access to shared CO2 transport and storage would create a scalable solution at a lower cost. The business community should embrace the findings of this report, unlocking a key tool in combating local emissions, while also sustaining Houston’s workforce.

This year’s CERAWeek occurred during an inflexion point in the U.S.’s conversation around decarbonization. While a lot of progress is underway, it is imperative that energy leaders and the business community fully leverage industrial carbon capture technology if they are serious about reducing emissions at the source. Failure to do so recalls the aphorism by Benjamin Franklin: "Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

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Aniruddha Sharma is the co-founder and CEO of Carbon Clean.