Keeping natural gas in pipelines, not air

natural-gas-leaksThis was the title of an article on Dot Earth, as I read the associated New York Times article in Le Figaro as this newspaper now proposes a selection of the best articles from the NYT.

The article is about how natural gas – and methane – is leaking through the miles and miles of pipelines and installations all over the world, thus adding even more greenhouse gases emissions.

As Mister Revkin notes this could be fixed quite fast and save money, energy and greenhouse gases emissions. This sounds like another win-win-win situation.

Here is the beginning of the NY Times article :

To the naked eye, there was nothing to be seen at a natural gas well in eastern Texas but beige pipes and tanks baking in the sun.But in the viewfinder of Terry Gosney’s infrared camera, three black plumes of gas gushed through leaks that were otherwise invisible.

“Holy smoke, it’s blowing like mad,” said Mr. Gosney, an environmental field coordinator for EnCana, the Canadian gas producer that operates the year-old well near Franklin, Tex. “It does look nasty.”

Within a few days the leaks had been sealed by workers.

Efforts like EnCana’s save energy and money. Yet they are also a cheap, effective way of blunting climate change that could potentially be replicated thousands of times over, from Wyoming to Siberia, energy experts say. Natural gas consists almost entirely of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas that scientists say accounts for as much as a third of the human contribution to global warming.

“This for me is an absolute no-brainer, even more so than putting in those compact fluorescent bulbs in your house,” said Al Armendariz, an engineer at Southern Methodist University who studies pollutants from oil and gas fields.

Acting quickly to stanch the loss of methane could substantially cut warming in the short run, even as countries tackle the tougher challenge of cutting the dominant greenhouse emission, carbon dioxide, studies by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggest.

Unlike carbon dioxide, which can remain in the atmosphere a century or more once released, methane persists in the air for about 10 years. So aggressively reining in emissions now would mean that far less of the gas would be warming the earth in a decade or so.

Methane is also a valuable target because while it is far rarer and more fleeting than carbon dioxide, ton for ton, it traps 25 times as much heat, researchers say.

Yet while federal and international programs have encouraged companies to seek and curb methane emissions from gas and oil wells, pipelines and tanks, aggressive efforts like EnCana’s are still far from the industry norm.

As a result, some three trillion cubic (1) feet of methane leak into the air every year, with Russia and the United States the leading sources, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s official estimate. (This amount has the warming power of emissions from over half the coal plants in the United States.) And government scientists and industry officials caution that the real figure is almost certainly higher.

Unless monitoring is greatly expanded, they say, such emissions could soar as global production of natural gas increases over the next few decades.

The Energy Department projects that gas production could rise nearly 50 percent over the next 20 years as companies race to discover and tap new sources. In the United States, 4,000 miles of new pipeline was laid last year alone.

But the industry has been largely resistant to an aggressive cleanup.

The Bush administration, which opposed mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions, expanded an existing voluntary domestic program for capturing methane emissions and began a related international program — with both aimed at promoting profitable ways for businesses to cut methane emissions as a relatively easy first step to combat climate change.

In April the Obama administration signaled that it could adopt rules requiring the biggest American companies to report all of their greenhouse gas emissions. Oil and gas industry groups countered that the cost and complexity of dealing with some 700,000 wells were too great.

(1) : that’s 85 billion cubic meters of methane to the Figaro conversions. That’s quite a lot of energy and money…

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