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The Future of Natural Gas Depends On How Well the Industry Can Capture Methane Releases

methane_gasWith the world focused on reducing greenhouses gases that most scientists say are tied to global warming, the regulators are looking closely at natural gas. Why? It releases about half the heat-trapping emissions as does coal, which is why a lot of people see it as the “bridge fuel” to a future comprised mostly of sustainable fuels.

Until that would happen, though, natural gas has one thing against it: methane, which is about 72 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. However, methane dissipates after about 20 years whereas carbon lingers for a century. That’s why the Obama administration has finalized regulations in May to control methane from oil and gas operations — rules that it says will minimize those emissions while allowing industry to capture the methane and to either re-sell it or to re-use it; methane is a building block component that can be integrated into the manufacturer of everyday products.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that by the rules go into the effect in 2025 that the total cost will $530 million But it says that they will produce benefits totaling $690 million, which will come from fewer emission combined with the re-use of the natural gas byproduct.

At least one trade group called One Future is in favor of the initiatives, saying that methane leaks can be cut to 1 percent of total production. As to what those releases are depends upon whom is doing the calculating: anywhere between 1 percent and 8 percent. But any more than 3.2 percent and the benefits of natural gas as a replacement for coal are wasted, says Princeton University.

As for One Future, it says that it does not support or condone efforts to dismiss EPA’s methane-mitigation efforts out of concern for costs. But it does adds that the regulatory approach of one-size does not fit all.

That is, its members comprised of AGL Resources, BHP Billiton, Hess, Kinder Morgan and Southwestern Natural Gas are spending millions on the technology to capture their escaping methane releases — moves that help make it money but that also ensure the future of natural gas. The smaller companies, however, don’t have those resources and a more deliberate approach is thus required, it says.

“EPA that has already proven, cost-effective, performance-based methane reductions from natural gas operations can be achieved. Since the inception of the STAR program 23 years ago, U.S. companies have eliminated more than 1.2 trillion cubic feet of methane emissions by implementing approximately 150 cost-effective technologies and practices,” says One Future’s press release. The Natural Gas STAR Methane Challenge Program is a voluntary partnership between industry and the EPA. 

The Obama administration wants to cut the level of methane gas emissions by 40-45 percent by the year 2025, from 2012 levels. Already, EPA has found that the amount of methane that is leaked into the atmosphere during the production and piping of the unconventional shale gas fell by 20 percent from 1990 to 2010 because of tougher regulations and better equipment.

A General Accountability Office study says that 40 percent of methane could be captured, meaning that investments in current technologies could easily pay off.

“It doesn’t make sense that the administration would add unreasonable and overly burdensome regulations when the industry is already leading the way in reducing emissions,” said Kyle Isakower, vice president of regulatory and economic policy for the American Petroleum Institute, in a statement. “Imposing a one-size-fits-all scheme on the industry could actually stifle innovation and discourage investments in new technologies that could serve to further reduce emissions.”

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