Richard Meyer Science, Like Fashion, is Never Finished

New knowledge sharpens our understanding of natural gas system emissions

The facts on methane are evolving. They are also complicated, and sometimes contradictory.

The questions around methane—how much, and from what sources—help clarify how the use of natural gas may achieve greater environmental benefits.

Prior work has shown that natural gas systems have a small methane footprint shaped by a declining trend. During the past few years, a number of efforts were launched to study and better understand the magnitude and location of methane emissions from the natural gas and other industries.

Two analyses were released in April 2016 that summarize and synthesize a growing body of work to date on methane. These studies are important because they help refine our understanding of emissions from natural gas systems and the implications for the greenhouse gas (GHG) profile of natural gas.

The first is the annual Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gases and Sinks from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  It’s the most comprehensive assessment of natural gas system methane emissions available.

This year’s edition featured significant revisions to its methodology and data sources for estimating methane released from natural gas industry operations. It incorporated data from EPA’s GHG Reporting Program, to which many natural gas companies across the U.S. are required to report. This dataset includes information on equipment counts and other “activities” or emissions sources.

In addition, the new Inventory integrates recent peer-reviewed studies that measured emissions from different components of the natural gas industry. New studies offer more recent and accurate data relative to prior editions.

For example, in this study a research team from Washington State University went into the field and measured emissions from natural gas distribution systems in 13 cities. They found that emissions from pipeline leaks and other gas utility systems were 36 to 70 percent lower than what EPA had been showing. These measurements formed the basis for new “emission factors,” which is a kind of average emissions per source that is used in EPA’s estimation methods

With all these changes, the Inventory reveals once again that natural gas system emissions have declined since 1990. The bottom-line total shows that total methane released from all natural gas systems declined 15 percent from 1990 to 2014.rmchart1

Furthermore, emissions from gas utility distribution systems in particular are now a small fraction of what they were two decades ago—down 74 percent since 1990—even as the system expanded more than 30 percent in terms of miles of pipe installed and numbers of customers served. The chart below illustrates the estimates for emissions from distribution mains alongside the growth in the miles of those pipelines. You can see the simultaneous decline in emissions and growth in the miles of main installed.

rmchart2This exceptional record can be traced to safety as the top priority for gas utilities who continue to systematically upgrade infrastructure. Today, there is a growing effort to accelerate the replacement of pipelines. Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have some form of accelerated infrastructure replacement program or policy, which is helping reduce emissions. It is because of these continuing efforts to modernize infrastructure and to enhance pipeline safety that natural gas emissions from distribution are expected to continue to decline.

In this year’s Inventory, EPA also expanded its universe of sources for the field production stage, which in turn revised emissions upward by 31 percent. The level of emissions may be higher than before—again due to accounting for gathering and boosting infrastructure that was not included in earlier inventories—but the trend is largely flat for the last decade. Field production emissions have been level since 2005 even as production increased 34 percent.

In all, the methane emissions rate of production—the so-called “leakage rate”— is now 1.4 percent. This is a level well below even the most stringent thresholds for immediate climate benefits achieved through coal-to-gas switching.

This exceptional record can be traced to safety as the top priority for gas utilities who continue to systematically upgrade infrastructure. Today, there is a growing effort to accelerate the replacement of pipelines. Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have some form of accelerated infrastructure replacement program or policy, which is helping reduce emissions. It is because of these continuing efforts to modernize infrastructure and to enhance pipeline safety that natural gas emissions from distribution are expected to continue to decline.

In this year’s Inventory, EPA also expanded its universe of sources for the field production stage, which in turn revised emissions upward by 31 percent. The level of emissions may be higher than before—again due to accounting for gathering and boosting infrastructure that was not included in earlier inventories—but the trend is largely flat for the last decade. Field production emissions have been level since 2005 even as production increased 34 percent.

In all, the methane emissions rate of production—the so-called “leakage rate”— is now 1.4 percent. This is a level well below even the most stringent thresholds for immediate climate benefits achieved through coal-to-gas switching.

More on the recent Inventory and changes to its methodology can be found in a white paper analysis I published titled, “New Science, New Facts: Understanding Updates to the EPA Inventory of Greenhouse Gases.”

The second analysis released in April is a comprehensive summary of the current literature. Titled Finding the Facts on Methane Emissions: A Guide to the Literature, ICF International examined 75 different studies to provide context for their respective conclusions. The consulting firm also evaluated the different kinds of sources of methane emissions in the natural gas industry, reviewed recent data on emissions (including the EPA Inventory), and discussed efforts for reductions.

Among its findings, ICF confirms a number of environmental attributes of natural gas:

  • Natural gas combustion releases significantly less carbon dioxide and criteria pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter (soot) and mercury compared with other fossil fuels.
  • U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are near 20-year lows.
  • The most detailed life-cycle analyses show that emissions of natural gas are 40-50 percent lower than coal on a 100-year basis.
  • The use of natural gas for power generation enables greater penetration of clean, renewable energy sources that are intermittent.

It concludes from its “meta-analysis” of 75 different studies on methane emissions that:

  • Direct measurement studies of emissions from natural gas operations show lower emissions than the factors used in the EPA Inventory, but a small number of sources inflate the emissions profile.
  • Ambient air measurement studies show a range of results and are affected by a variety of uncertainties.
  • Additional support that life-cycle analyses of natural gas show significantly lower emissions compared with coal.

Science, like fashion, is never finished, and ICF rightly notes that there’s more work to be done in this space. Similarly, the EPA Inventory is an iterative process with annual updates to its data and methodology. We should expect additional changes to estimates from natural gas systems next year.

Importantly too is that the natural gas system itself is constantly improving. I mentioned the 39 states (and DC) with pipeline replacement programs, which have contributed to reductions in emissions from gas utility systems. In addition, 41 companies have pledged support as founding partners for the EPA Methane Challenge Program, which launched in March 2016 and is designed to encourage companies to follow certain best practices to mitigate methane. And currently EPA regulations to reduce volatile organic compounds from natural gas production went into effect in 2015 and are helping to reduce emissions.

We should expect more work in terms of technology, science around emissions, and collaborations between companies and regulators that will further improve upon the already low emissions profile of natural gas systems. These analyses underscore the role that natural gas can play in helping to reduce overall GHG emissions.

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Jake Rubin Extending the Benefits

Americans want natural gas to heat their homes, warm their water and cook their food because it is comfortable and affordable. More homes and businesses use clean natural gas today than ever before and the numbers continue to increase. In addition, many industries use natural gas as a fuel or a feedstock for production. Recent low prices of natural gas have reduced the price of goods manufactured in this country and created many manufacturing jobs here at home. To deliver that unparalleled value, we need to build more pipelines and expand our pipeline capacity in certain parts of the country. New pipeline and processing infrastructure expansion will be key to connecting new supply sources with new and growing sources of demand.

A study prepared for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) by IHS released last week says that total natural gas demand is poised to increase by 40 percent over the next decade—double the growth of the past 10 years. IHS estimates that as a result of the increase in domestic shale gas production, the United States’ gross domestic product (GDP) increased by $190 billion and added 1.4 million more jobs. Our nation’s natural gas abundance means the average American family had an extra $1,337 in disposable income.

When we invest in constructing, expanding and repurposing existing natural gas pipelines, it makes a significant contribution to the U.S. economy. The study explores increases in economic activity in sectors that provide the goods and services used in the construction and operation of natural gas pipelines such as steel pipe, coatings, construction equipment, compressors, motors, gauges and instruments, sand and gravel, engineering and design services, etc., as well as the spending of disposable income by construction workers. The construction of new natural gas transmission lines meant more than 347,000 jobs in 2015 alone. When you also consider the ongoing impacts of operation and maintenance of existing pipelines as well, it adds up to nearly $50 billion in GDP that year.

The study cites two reports supported by the American Gas Foundation including “Gas Distribution Infrastructure: Pipeline Replacement and Upgrades” from July 2012 and “Fueling the Future with Natural Gas: Bringing It Home,” which was also prepared by IHS in January 2014. The “Fueling the Future” report highlighted an opportunity to use natural gas to promote economic development, attract industrial, power or large commercial gas-using facilities to serve as anchor tenants around which a gas distribution system can be extended to smaller residential and commercial customers in the area. To do this, we need a new regulatory atmosphere. Much of the prevailing natural gas regulation was developed in a time of perceived natural gas scarcity. Thirty-seven states have adopted or are currently considering innovative pipeline expansion proposals to get gas to communities that don’t yet have it, and that number is quickly growing. As they do, more American homes and business will be able to experience the benefits of clean natural gas for themselves.

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Jackie Bavaro A Changing Energy Landscape presents Growth of Natural Gas Investment Opportunities

The cover story for the May issue of American Gas magazine, titled “Investments Abound” discusses the changing energy landscape and the possibilities for growth and opportunity that exist.

In this rapidly changing industry, many of the remaining silos that once separated energy sectors are disappearing. In October 2015, Duke Energy made headlines when it announced its $4.9 billion acquisition of its Atlantic Coast Pipeline Partner, Piedmont Natural Gas. Additionally, the proposed $12 billion Southern Co.-AGL Resources merger is expected to create the United States’ second-largest utility by customer base, with approximately nine million utility customers in nine states.Capture3

Furthermore, with an attractive regulatory environment and presence of quality assets, the United States is a prime market for Canadian investors. Canadian-based Emera’s $10.4 billion acquisition of TECO Energy, approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee this past January, reflects the strong interest abroad in U.S.-regulated assets. TransCanada’s bid for the Columbia Pipeline Group further shows how foreign energy companies view competing in the American market as a real opportunity to grow investments.

Merger-and-acquisition activities have had a hand in rejuvenating the investment portfolios of the stakeholders of many natural gas and utility companies in the United States and those across its northern border. Combined with global environmental and economic factors, the changing investment landscape could add a new dimension to what it means to be an energy provider in America.

To learn more, you can read the American Gas article here.

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Jackie Bavaro #FuelingOurCommunities during National Volunteer Month

Throughout April, many of our member companies dedicated their time and resources to their local communities by leading community-based service projects in honor of National Volunteer Month.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company kicked-off the utility’s third-annual Month of Service employee volunteer initiative with activities that included neighborhood emergency response training, distributing food to the underserved and installing solar panels on Habitat for Humanity homes. Anchored by 11 Earth Day cleanup and restoration events in partnership with the California State Parks Foundation, the company’s Month of Service program featured more than 100 employee volunteer projects throughout Northern and Central California.

Employees of Baltimore Gas and Electric celebrated the entire month of April by participating in more than 30 employee-led service projects across central Maryland, for the 10th consecutive year. In addition, BGE employees organized activities for more than 350 employees, family members and friends, which included planting community gardens, preparing food for homebound individuals and rebuilding homes.

Ameren Corporation honored National Volunteer Month by helping local communityCapture2 organizations with a range of volunteer opportunities focusing on benefiting families and promoting diversity and inclusion among community members. These projects included assisting with field events at the local Special Olympics spring games, presenting an electrical safety program at the Girl Scout Camporee in Dexter, Missouri and planting flowers at the Transgender Memorial Garden in St. Louis. These volunteer initiatives are part of the Ameren Cares program, which connects Ameren with the communities it serves through charitable giving and volunteering.

To that end, AGA employees volunteer monthly at So Other Might Eat (SOME) to continue AGA’s ongoing effort to foster a culture of giving. SOME is an interfaith, community-based organization that exists to help the underserved individuals of our nation’s capital. AGA is proud to support this wonderful cause and give back to our community where we are fortunate to live and work. In a similar vein, AGA staff participated in Washington Gas’ annual Earth Day Cleanup on April 16.

April has been a tremendous showcase of our industry’s community spirit. Thank you for your hard work and continuing to be true partners of the communities that you serve. Please let us know in the comments below or by using the hashtag #fuelingourcommunities to highlight how you’re giving back in 2016.

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