U.S. and China Will Focus on Methane Capture, Which Technologies Allow

A dessert-like field meets gray sky with a factory in the far left corner.

by | Jul 25, 2023

A dessert-like field meets gray sky with a factory in the far left corner.

(Credit: Canva Pro)

The United States and China are back at the bargaining table to discuss climate change. And U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry may have left China with an agreement on methane emissions, the most potent greenhouse gas emission of them all — and one responsible for about 30 percent of all global warming.

Moreover, major oil and gas producers support methane controls. ShellEquinorBPTotal, Statoil, and EQT are thinking long term: without methane controls, the world can’t limit temperature increases, which then dampens the prospects for natural gas usage; methane is a byproduct of natural gas that, if captured from leaking pipelines and new wells, can be resold.

Cutting methane emissions is one of the most effective ways to limit global warming and improve air quality in the near term.

“Methane is particularly important for our cooperation,” Kerry told a congressional committee earlier this month, as quoted in Reuters. “China agreed to have a methane action plan out of our prior talks in Glasgow (in 2021), and again in Sharm el-Sheikh” in November.” The goal is to cut them by 30 percent by 2030, although China may unveil a formal plan at COP28 in Dubai.

UN report says that, globally, methane emissions are on the rise once again: agriculture is responsible for 40% of those releases. Fossil fuels, comparatively, contribute 35%, while landfills make up 20%. The fossil fuel sector is ripe for change because the current technologies to limit escaping methane now exist — something that could take a bite out of rising temperatures. Notably, methane is 84 times more potent than CO2 over 20 years.

That comports with the International Energy Agency’s findings. Its Global Methane Tracker found that the global energy industry contributed 135 million tons of methane in 2022, slightly below the record highs in 2019. Today, the energy sector accounts for around 40% of total methane emissions attributable to human activity, second only to agriculture.

It adds that existing technologies could cut methane emissions in the oil and gas sector by 75 percent: It says about 260 billion cubic meters of methane escapes annually into the atmosphere. Three-quarters of this could be retained and brought to market using tried and tested policies and technologies.

“The untamed release of methane in fossil fuel production is a problem that sometimes goes under the radar in public debate,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. “Unfortunately, it’s not a new issue and emissions remain stubbornly high. Many companies saw hefty profits last year following a turbulent period for international oil and gas markets amid the global energy crisis. Fossil fuel producers need to step up and policymakers need to step in … quickly.”

Utilities Also Worry about Methane Releases

Take Paxon Energy and Infrastructure: Instead of flaring or releasing the natural gas, the company removes it from the pipeline during maintenance and inspections. Paxon says it recaptures about 20 million standard cubic feet of methane annually, which natural gas utilities can sell. Because it is captured and re-used, regulators consider it “renewable.” The technology also aligns with President Biden’s goal of reducing methane emissions by 30% by 2030.

Southern Company uses Paxon’s technology, saying it is “hyper-focused” on safety, community relations, and making investments that improve quality of life. Its goal is to provide sustainable services at affordable prices while engaging various stakeholders.

Methane recapture needs to be better among utilities, it says. “It is new and emerging, and companies are considering it,” says Nikita Trivedi, director of sustainability and supplier inclusion for Southern Company, in an interview. “It’s part of our sustainability strategy; over time, it will get more cost-effective. We have a net-zero strategy by 2050, so this is a perfect partnership.”

Recapturing methane is considered a “best practice” — not yet required of utilities. But 192 countries are parties to the Paris climate agreement, which seeks to limit temperature increases to stunt global warming. For oil and gas companies, recaptured methane is sold to manufacturers to produce such things as plastics.

Utilities find it a well-ordered process, allowing them to use all of the natural gas in their pipelines to create fuel for homes or cars. Most utilities want to recapture natural gas and methane, although nearly all those endeavors are in the experimental or research and development stages. Competing technologies exist.

“We are thinking about the environment and engineering solutions within a company’s constraints,” said Paxon’s CEO and Founder Nooshin Behroyan, in an interview. “We are renewing energy that would otherwise get wasted. Poorly managed pipelines get bad results.”

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