Showtime's methane episode caught in numbers game

Ben N. Ratner

Adding to the drumbeat for action on the supercharged climate pollutant methane, Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously” series recently spotlighted methane emissions leaking from America’s oil and natural gas infrastructure.

One theme of the May 19 episode hinged on a numbers question: Just how much methane is getting out? This question, a common one in the methane arena, refers to the national methane leakage rate for the entire oil and gas supply chain.

Various numbers, as low as 1 percent, were suggested for the national average with 4 percent, 11 percent and even 17 percent reported by scientific studies in some oil-and-gas producing regions. The problem is, it’s the wrong question.

We should stop fixating the debate on just how bad the problem is, when we know there is a problem that we can address with confidence today.

Methane is initially more than 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide when released into the atmosphere.

Environmental Defense Fund is nearing the final stages of a multi-year methane research series to better understand and quantify methane emissions from all across the natural gas value chain. Among other things, those studies will help inform an answer to the show’s original question.

In the meantime, we know – and literally no study can refute – that:

  • Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is accelerating climate change
  • United States methane emissions are significant, with the oil and gas sector being the largest industrial source
  • Every ton of methane emitted undermines the potential of natural gas to serve as the cleaner fossil fuel
  • Solutions are within our grasp with some leading states, and oil and gas companies, beginning to show the way

Let’s zero in on the right goal

So while the science assessing the problem marches on through EDF’s direct work and that of our partners and other experts, let’s focus on one simple, aspirational number for the goal: zero. As in zero emissions.

Zero emissions would mean zero tolerance for the avoidable wasting of a natural resource. It would mean an airtight American oil and gas system, with record-setting efficiency that could spur other nations to follow suit.

And critically, zero emissions would mean zero direct contribution to climate change from a pollutant that is initially more than 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide when released into the atmosphere.

 We can cut 40% of emissions today

Mark Boling, an officer at natural gas producer Southwestern Energy, got it exactly right at the show’s conclusion when he said “Let’s go out and fix the problem.” The undeniable fact is that we have the technologies and approaches to do just that and to do it cost effectively.

The ICF International economic report that EDF commissioned earlier this year, which consulted industry to ground-truth the data, shows how we can cut emissions by 40 percent – more than enough gas to cook 10 billion dinners. And with methane controls representing less than 1 percent of industry total capital expenditures, and in many cases paying for themselves through improved efficiency, there’s no reason to wait.

The technology already exists

The emission-slashing strategies are as straightforward as swapping in valves designed to minimize emissions, and sending inspectors with handheld cameras to detect and fix leaks. While today’s technology doesn’t yet permit reaching zero emissions, it will get us much of the way there, and EDF, industry leaders and innovators have taken on the challenge of finding the tools to speed up that journey.

Technology innovation and the relentless spirit of continuous improvement – both hallmarks for the energy industry – can propel America onward in the race to zero.

Let’s change the methane emissions numbers game. Let’s aim for zero. That’s the only zero-regrets move.