Difficulty measuring methane slows plan to slash emissions
The doors of a metal box slide open, and a drone rises over a gas well in Pennsylvania. Its mission: To find leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, so that energy companies can plug the leaks and reduce the emissions that pollute the air.
The drone is among an array of instruments whose purpose is to detect leaks of methane, which scientists say causes roughly 30% of manmade global warming. Along with satellites, ground sensors and planes armed with infrared cameras, drones are part of the backbone of a new federal policy to compel energy companies to record and slash their methane emissions.
The problem is, no one knows when — or even whether — that will be possible. Technology that might allow for precise methane measurements is still being developed. Under the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, enacted into law last year, companies must start producing precise measurements of their methane emissions next year and face fines if they exceed permissible levels. Yet if no one knows how much methane an energy company has emitted, it’s unclear that any fines could be justified.
“They don’t measure the methane because the capability hasn’t been there,” Drew Shindell, a professor of earth science at Duke University, said of regulators. “It’s challenging to really go measure all these methane sources.”
Even energy companies that have begun developing systems to reduce their methane emissions are likely years away from being able to make comprehensive calculations Most of them are measuring leaks for only a fraction of their operations.
Satellites, which help connect emissions to a single source, aren’t widely enough available. Ground-based sensors and drones require vast amounts of money and time to widely distribute.
On top of all that, any agreement on what equipment would be acceptable to measure methane and how it should be used requires a rigorous process involving industry, government and environmental scientists.
“We need to develop these standards, and this can take years, so the process is slow,” said Thomas Lauvaux, a climate scientist at University of Reims in France.
Despite the obstacles, climate scientists and environmentalists say they still welcome the administration’s effort, under the Inflation Reduction Act, to slash methane emissions.
Even if the timeline outlined in the law’s methane reduction program is unrealistic, they say, it’s likely to prod companies to accelerate their efforts to reduce leaks.
“The fact that there are these rules and now a pricing regime for methane for the first time is a huge benefit for dealing with the oil and gas sector that we just haven’t had the tools to do until now,” said Deborah Gordon, senior principal at the Rocky Mountain Institute, which seeks to accelerate a transition to clean energy.
Under the new law, the EPA can fine companies $900 per ton of methane starting in 2024, rising to $1,500 in 2026. For companies with significant leaks, the costs could be substantial. Kayrros, a satellite analytics firm, observed a Texas natural gas compressor station that released about 2,000 tons of methane over eight days in 2020. That leak would trigger fines of of $1.8 million if it occurred in 2024 or $3 million in 2026.
Most energy companies don’t measure their actual methane emissions. Instead, they produce estimates based on how much methane they say typically escapes from their equipment.
Scientists have found that those estimates vastly understate the problem. Using data from satellites and aerial surveys, they concluded in peer-reviewed studies that nations and companies are emitting double or triple as much methane as they’re reporting.