Tag Archives: greenhouse gases

Hunting Down Polluters from Space

When scanning for emissions from a mud volcano in western Turkmenistan in January 2019, a satellite called Claire came across a large plume of methane drifting across the landscape. … The company operating the satellite, GHGSAT passed details via diplomats to officials in Turkmenistan, and after a few months the leaks stopped. This largely unknown incident illustrates two things: that satellites can play an important role in spotting leaks of greenhouse gases and, rather worryingly, that the extent of such leaks is often greatly underestimated. The data from Claire suggested the leak in Turkmenistan had been a big one…142,000 tonnes of methane. This made the Turkmenistani leak far bigger than the 97,000 tonnes of methane discharged over four months by a notorious blowout at a natural-gas storage facility in Aliso Canyon, California, in 2015, which is reckoned to have been the worst natural-gas leak yet recorded in America. There have been other big leaks, too…

The reason for concern is that although methane, the main constituent of natural gas, does not linger in the atmosphere for anywhere near as long as carbon dioxide does, it is a far more potent heat-trapping agent. About a quarter of man-made global warming is thought to be caused by methane. And between a fifth and a third of the methane involved is contributed by the oil and gas industry. Methane can be detected spectroscopically. Like other gases, it absorbs light at characteristic frequencies. With a spectrometer mounted on a satellite it is possible to analyse light reflected from Earth for signs of the gas. As with the satellites that carry them, spectrometers come in many shapes and sizes. Tropomi can also detect the spectral signs of other polluting gases, such as nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Other methane-hunting satellites are coming. These include one due for launch in 2022 by Methanesat, an affiliate of the Environmental Defence Fund, an American non-profit organisation. The 350kg satellite will cost $88m to build and put into orbit. It will scan an area of land 200km wide with a resolution of 1km by 1km. According to Methanesat, it will be the most sensitive to emission levels yet, being able to detect methane concentrations as low as two parts-per-billion. Data collected by the satellite will be publicly available.

Excerpts from The Methane Hunters, Economist, Feb. 1 2020

The Eco-Villain of the 2020s: Moving

[E]ven “green” transport risks becoming a villain… Transport has been the only sector in which greenhouse-gas emissions have consistently risen both in the U.S. and in the European Union… Road, aviation, waterborne and rail transportation put together now account for eight metric gigatons of carbon-dioxide equivalents, which is 24% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. In the U.S. this figure rises to 34%….To be consistent with the existing Paris Agreement goals, transport emissions need to peak around 2020 and then fall around 70% relative to 2015 levels, estimates by the International Energy Agency show.

In theory, electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles chart a clear path to lower emissions. Even once the costs of making the batteries and generating the electricity that feeds them is taken into account, most estimates suggest that they emit roughly half as much greenhouse gases as a gasoline car. But recent experience proves that consumer tastes can easily sabotage steps toward sustainability: In the U.S., rising demand for pickup trucks has offset any gain from electric vehicles. And faster economic development in emerging nations will inevitably mean higher emissions, even if each vehicle pollutes less.

In China and India, the number of motorized vehicles per person quintupled and tripled, respectively, between 2007 and 2017, according to U.S. Department of Energy data. Catching up with U.S. levels of motorization—which admittedly are very high—both countries would need two billion extra vehicles. Even if 100% of those were electric, they would add more emissions on their own than the total level allowed by the Paris goals.

Greenhouse gases coming from aviation also keep surging despite the fact that planes are becoming increasingly fuel efficient because air traffic growth has surged. Furthermore, while environmental policies have tended to focus on passenger transport, this misses a big chunk of the picture, because almost half of transportation emissions now come from freight.

Adoption of rail, a cleaner alternative, isn’t picking up. Meanwhile ocean freight, which is by far the most efficient form of transport per ton mile, faces a reckoning from new rules that take effect in January 2020 because it relies on the dirtiest fuel to be so economical.

Excerpts from  Jon Sindreu, In the Green Transition, Transportation Is the Next Big Baddie, WSJ, Dec. 23, 2019

Greening the Mining Industry

An Australian regulator recently told Peabody Energy Glencore they couldn’t export coal from a new mine to countries that haven’t signed the Paris climate agreement. Two other Australian coal projects were scuttled in 2019, partly out of concern about greenhouse-gas emissions overseas.  Investors, too, are growing inquisitive about miners’ records on their customer emissions—partly out of fear about potential liability. Miners are responding by increasing carbon-impact disclosure, forming alliances with buyers and investing in technology to cut emissions from steel mills and power plants.  BHP  has said its scope 3 emissions—pollution mostly created when customers transport and use the commodities it produces—are almost 40 times greater than those generated at its own operations.

In the oil industry, facing similar pressures, there is friction among large companies over whether to commit to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from products such as gasoline—in big part because emissions vary hugely depending on the vehicle…

Threats to miners’ business go beyond pushback on new projects. Consumer brands could stop buying commodities they consider too dirty, experts say. Many are already innovating with recycled materials.

In July 2019, BHP pledged to spend $400 million over five years to develop technologies that can reduce emissions both from its operations and its customers’.  “We won’t stop at the mine gate,” BHP Chief Executive Andrew Mackenzie said. …Rio Tinto is also drawing up scenarios for decarbonizing the steel industry. Success could materially affect the value of its core iron-ore business, it said.  Meantime, miners are touting their role in the shift to a low-carbon economy by producing commodities such as copper and nickel for wind turbines and electric vehicles.

Excerpts from Rhiannon Hoyle, Miners’ New Worry: Other People’s Pollution, WSJ, Oct. 9, 2019

Greening Natural Gas: How to Record Gas Leaks with Hand-Held Cameras

Energy companies are producing record volumes of natural gas, thanks in part to the U.S. fracking boom. They have ambitious plans to make the cleaner-burning fuel a big part of the global energy mix for decades to come by sending tankers of liquefied gas around the world.But growing public concern over leaks and intentional releases of gas and its primary component, methane, threaten to derail the dominance of gas in the new energy world order.  Methane is far more potent than carbon dioxide in contributing to climate change. That makes it particularly harmful to the environment when it is discharged into the atmosphere.

In the U.S. alone, the methane that leaks or is released from oil and gas operations annually is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from more than 69 million cars, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis using conversion formulas from the Environmental Protection Agency and emissions estimates for 2015 published last year in the journal Science….The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body, says methane is even more potent than the estimates the EPA uses. By its calculation the annual releases would be equal to those of about 94 million cars, or roughly a third of the nation’s registered vehicles.

About 2.3% of the natural gas produced in the U.S. escapes directly into the atmosphere due in part to leaky equipment or intentional discharges, according to the Science study, which analyzed 2015 emissions. (Some discharges are legally permitted.) At that rate, it would have amounted to about $7.6 million worth of gas lost each day last year.  Another roughly $4.5 million in U.S. gas went up in smoke each day in 2018, World Bank data show, as energy companies burned fuel  (a practice known as flaring) they couldn’t move to market or chose not to ship because the cost of doing so would have exceeded the price the gas would fetch in some regions. Many companies drill primarily for oil and treat the gas released in the process as a byproduct.

Leaking and flaring are a global problem. As gas displaces coal for electricity production in the U.S. and other countries its side effects are drawing more attention, not just from environmental activists but investors fretting about how gas will compete over the long term against renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, which are dropping in price.

President Trump’s administration has moved to relax existing federal requirements for monitoring and fixing leaks. Still, from oil giants to the independent drillers powering the shale boom, companies are scrambling to rein in emissions over concerns from their executives, shareholders and environmentalists that gas waste could undermine the argument for gas as the “bridge fuel” to a cleaner future of renewables.

Methane is invisible to the naked eye, so companies detect leaks with infrared cameras and lasers. That can be a tall task—the gas can seep out of countless places, from wells to pipelines to storage facilities.  As a result, energy companies are increasingly supplementing manual inspections with aerial monitoring to survey large swaths of land checkerboarded with oil and gas infrastructure.  In West Texas, BP has begun monthly flights over its wells by a drone equipped with methane-detection equipment.   The company also is looking to cut back on flaring, which many companies do in the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico because they lack access to pipelines to move the product to market….BP is investing in a new gas-gathering and compression system that will allow it to send more gas to customers instead of burning it away…

Kairos,  a company, specializes in identifying larger methane releases by flying small planes about 3,000 feet above the ground. …Kairos has received funding from the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, an industry organization whose members include Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. The companies in the organization have pledged to collectively cut average methane emissions to less than 0.25% of gas sold by 2025.

One reason companies are stepping up monitoring is that environmental activists are watching, using technology to record leaks as they seek to boost public awareness of methane emissions.  Sharon Wilson, an organizer for the advocacy organization Earthworks, visits the Permian almost every month to monitor leaks from oil and gas sites, using a hand-held infrared camera. She submits the footage as evidence in state regulatory complaints against energy companies and often posts it on YouTube…Earthworks has filed more than 100 complaints in Texas and New Mexico since the beginning of 2018. State regulators issued violations or compelled operators to make repairs or install new equipment in fewer than 10% of the instances as of July, according to estimates by the group.

Excerpts from Rebecca Elliott, The Leaks that Threaten the Clean Image of Natural Gas, WSJ,  Aug. 10, 2019

5,000 Eyes in the Sky: environmental monitoring

The most advanced satellite to ever launch from Africa will soon be patrolling South Africa’s coastal waters to crack down on oil spills and illegal dumping.  Data from another satellite, this one collecting images from the Texas portion of a sprawling oil and gas region known as the Permian Basin, recently delivered shocking news: Operators there are burning off nearly twice as much natural gas as they’ve been reporting to state officials.

With some 5,000 satellites now orbiting our planet on any given day…. They will help create a constantly innovating industry that will revolutionize environmental monitoring of our planet and hold polluters accountable…

A recent study by Environmental Defense Fund focused on natural gas flares from the wells in the Permian Basin, located in Western Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Our analysis proved that the region’s pollution problem was much larger than companies had revealed.  A second study about offshore gas flaring in the Gulf of Mexico, published by a group of scientists in the Geophysical Research Letters, showed that operators there burn off a whopping 40% of the natural gas they produce.

Soon a new satellite will be launching that is specifically designed not just to locate, but accurately measure methane emissions from human-made sources, starting with the global oil and gas industry.  MethaneSAT, a new EDF affiliate unveiled in 2018, will launch a future where sensors in space will find and measure pollution that today goes undetected. This compact orbital platform will map and quantify methane emissions from oil and gas operations almost anywhere on the planet at least weekly.

Excerpts from Mark Brownstein, These pollution-spotting satellites are just a taste of what’s to come, EDF, Apr. 4, 2019

The Unquenchable Thirst for Oil

Demand for oil is rising and the energy industry, in America and globally, is planning multi-trillion-dollar investments to satisfy it. No firm embodies this strategy better than ExxonMobil, the giant that rivals admire and green activists love to hate. As our briefing explains, it plans to pump 25% more oil and gas in 2025 than in 2017. If the rest of the industry pursues even modest growth, the consequence for the climate could be disastrous.

To date politicians, particularly in America, have been reluctant to legislate for bold restrictions on carbon. That is in part thanks to ExxonMobil’s attempts to obstruct efforts to mitigate climate change. …ExxonMobil’s policies on climate change remain marred by inconsistencies. In October the company said it was giving $1m, spread over two years, to a group advocating a carbon tax. ExxonMobil maintains that a carbon tax is a transparent and fair way to limit emissions. But the sum is less than a tenth of its federal lobbying spending in 2018. Moreover, the carbon tax it favours would include protection for oil companies from climate lawsuits.

The firm is also working to reduce leaks of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from its wells, pipelines and refineries. However the American Petroleum Institute  (API) has been a main force urging Mr Trump’s administration to ease regulations on methane emissions. The API’s other efforts include lobbying against incentives for electric cars.  ExxonMobil is not alone in trying to sway the climate debate in its direction either. Shell, Total and BP are all members of the API. Marathon Petroleum, a refiner, reportedly campaigned to ease Barack Obama’s fuel-economy standards. BP spent $13m to help block a proposal for a carbon tax in Washington state in November. The Western States Petroleum Association, whose membership includes ExxonMobil and Shell, also lobbied to defeat that tax.

While oil companies plan to grow, trends in cleaner energy are moving in the wrong direction. Investments in renewables fell as a share of the total in 2017 for the first time in three years, as spending on oil and gas climbed. In 2018 carbon emissions in America grew by 3.4% as economic activity picked up, even as coal fell out of favour. Mr Woods maintains that any change to the energy supply will be gradual. “I don’t think people can readily understand just how large the energy system is, and the size of that energy system will take time to evolve,” he argues… Out at sea, ExxonMobil is working to increase production. By next year an underwater web of pipes will connect wells on the seabed to a vast vessel. From there the oil will be transferred to smaller tankers, then to the vast infrastructure that can refine and transport it until it reaches consumers in the form of fertiliser, plastic bottles, polyester or, most likely, petrol. From beneath the ocean floor to your car’s tank, for about the price of a gallon of milk.

Excerpts from  Crude Awakening, Economist,  Feb. 9, 2019; Bigger Oil, Economist,  Feb. 9, 2019

An Umbrella for the Sun: Geo-Engineering

The idea of cooling the climate with stratospheric sunshades that would shield the planet from the sun’s warming rays moved up the international agenda in March 2019, with mixed results. On the one hand, new research suggested that it is theoretically possible to fine-tune such a shield without some of its potentially damaging consequences. Publication of this work coincided with a proposal at the biennial UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), held in Nairobi, Kenya, for an expert review of such geoengineering methods. This was the highest-level discussion of the topic so far. On the other hand, the more than 170 nations involved could not arrive at a consensus. In a fitting illustration of the heat surrounding geoengineering, the proposal was withdrawn at the eleventh hour.

Under the Paris Agreement, governments have pledged to keep average global warming to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to try to limit maximum warming to 1.5°C. Many see these targets as wishful thinking: the planet is already roughly 1°C warmer than it was in pre-industrial times, global greenhouse gas emissions are still on the rise and national pledges to cut them fall short of what is needed to hit the 2°C target, let alone 1.5°C.

Faced with this, some think there is a need to turn down the global thermostat using geoengineering. This encompasses a range of possibilities, including technologies that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and others that block incoming solar energy….  The unea resolution was tabled by Switzerland, and by the start of the week it had received support from most governments. It called for an expert review of the science of geoengineering,…Among the most controversial but also effective and affordable geoengineering options are planetary sunshades. By using high-flying aircraft, for instance, to spray a fine mist of mineral or man-made particles into the upper stratosphere, a portion of the sun’s incoming energy could be bounced back out into space before it gets a chance to warm the planet.  But there are challenges. Stratospheric particles eventually fall back to Earth in rain, so the effect is short-lived. A sunshade would need to be continually resupplied, which is one reason for an international governance framework. If a sunshade were allowed to dissipate while atmospheric CO2 concentrations remained high, global temperatures would rapidly shoot up, with devastating consequences in some regions of the world.  Another problem is the effect of solar geoengineering on the water cycle. Over the past decade, several studies have suggested that sunshades could disproportionately affect rainfall, bringing drought to some regions. But that argument may be oversimplified, according to the new study published in Nature Climate Change .

Position of Sunshade Relative to Earth, Moon and Sun from
http://mycgenie.seao2.info/pubs/Irvine_and_Ridgwell_2009.pdf

Switzerland’s proposal to study geo-engineering was blocked at the UNEA…Several delegates told the Economist that America and Saudi Arabia opposed the Swiss proposal to review geoengineering, preferring the issue to be assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is due to include something about the technologies in its next big report, expected in 2021. ..But the Swiss proposal was for a more comprehensive appraisal and one that would be delivered more quickly, by August 2020…. Indeed, there are concerns that some geoengineering methods could be unilaterally deployed by one or more nations, to the possible detriment of others.  The Americans, some said, did not appear to want to make room for conversations, let alone make decisions, about a framework for geoengineering that could restrict their future options.

Excerpts from  Sunny with Overcast Features: Geoengineering, Economist, Mar. 16, 2019