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Why capping methane leaks is a win-win goal for industry and environmentalists

November 4, 2015 at 6:35 PM EST
Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is also a potent greenhouse gas, trapping energy in the atmosphere. Last year NASA released satellite images showing a hot spot in the area where New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona meet, prompting scientists to go in search of the sources. Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery reports on efforts to crackdown on methane emissions.
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GWEN IFILL: But, first, natural gas is often considered a cleaner fuel than coal. It emits about half as much carbon dioxide. But the main component in natural gas is another greenhouse gas: methane.

As special correspondent Kathleen McCleery explains, that’s why both environmentalists and the energy industry are trying to find ways to capture leaks from oil and gas facilities.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: You can’t see it with the naked eye, but methane gas is escaping into the air around this well in Northwestern New Mexico.

MAN: Oh, yes. Yes, boy, it’s just blowing up out of the — off the side of it here.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: You can see the methane, along with other emissions, with the help of an infrared camera, this one operated by the environmental group Earthworks.

WOMAN: There’s a lot of leaking coming from both of those valve boxes.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Methane is the primary component of natural gas. It’s also a greenhouse gas. Like carbon dioxide, it traps energy in the atmosphere, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, contributes to climate change. CO2 is far more prevalent, but methane is much more potent.

MANVENDRA DUBEY, Los Alamos National Laboratory: Methane is about 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas on a 100-year horizon than CO2.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Los Alamos atmospheric scientist Manvendra Dubey was measuring carbon dioxide, not methane, last year when NASA released satellite images, including this one showing a 2,500-square-mile hot spot centered over the Four Corners area, where New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona meet.

MANVENDRA DUBEY: They showed that, over Four Corners, methane was enhanced. It was the — kind of the hottest methane spot in the whole of continental U.S.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Now, Dubey and others are tracking methane through ground and aerial investigations aimed at finding the sources of the hot spot. Some emissions seep out of coal beds here in the San Juan Basin. Some come from agriculture, including cows. Winds allow the gas to pool in the river basin surrounded by mountains.

Nationwide, the EPA traces the largest amount, about 30 percent, to natural gas and petroleum. But the industry doesn’t accept that figure yet.

Wally Drangmeister, vice president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, wants the ongoing research to examine all sources.

WALLY DRANGMEISTER, Vice President, New Mexico Oil and Gas Association: There are natural outcroppings. There’s coal mining. There’s a lot of other activities, and so we’d really like to see the science completed, so that we’re not just the only industry or the only source that’s getting blamed.

JANE SCHREIBER, Owner, Devil’s Spring Ranch: We’re in the middle of nowhere, but, yes, basically, we’re kind of in the middle of that hot spot.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: At Devil’s Spring Ranch, Don and Jane Schreiber worry about the natural gas wells on their property. They took us along on a tour in their retrofitted school bus when the Earthworks team visited recently.

BRUCE BAIZEL, Energy Program Director, Earthworks: If you see leakage coming on this camera, there is leakage, and there’s really no argument about it anymore.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The Schreibers’ concern goes beyond climate change to the air they’re breathing, because other chemicals like benzene are emitted along with the methane.

DON SCHREIBER, Owner, Devil’s Spring Ranch: It’s got to be bad, and now we know it is, and it’s in that cloud, and it’s a very, very sobering thing.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Companies can drill here because of a law called split estate. The Schreibers own the land above ground, but the mineral rights below, in this case owned by the federal government, can be leased to oil and gas companies.

More than 120 wells dot the Schreibers’ ranch, just a fraction of the tens of thousands in the nation’s second largest natural gas field.

JANE SCHREIBER: We went to three wells today. Every one of them were either venting or leaking. And those were, you know, less than a mile from our house.

DON SCHREIBER: Well, there are 20,000 existing wells here now, most of them acting just exactly like the wells we saw today.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The Environmental Defense Fund has spearheaded multiple studies on methane emissions. Its energy policy manager says the problem is not a tough one to solve.

JON GOLDSTEIN, Energy Policy Manager, Environmental Defense Fund: Literally, the problem is being looked at by rocket scientists. But the solutions are largely plumbing. We are talking about fixing pipes, stopping them from leaking at natural gas production sites, and that’s stuff that we know how to do.

TOM MULLINS, CEO, Synergy Operating, LLC: Anywhere that we have methane usage, you would be concerned if you have leaks.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Industry is hunting and fixing methane emissions, says Tom Mullins, who owns part of an oil and gas company in Farmington. We met on the campus of San Juan College’s School of Energy, which offers hands-on training.

TOM MULLINS: We have been applying technology, you know, identifying leaks that are out there. You know, we do that on a daily basis, as all good industry folks would do.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: For industry, doing green is nice. Seeing green is even better. Captured methane can be sold, since it’s essentially natural gas. That’s good for companies and taxpayers.

TOM MULLINS: We’re in the business of producing methane, and we would like to get paid for it, and we would like the public to get paid for their share of that methane. Here in New Mexico, the — basically the entire public school system, both at K-12 and then the higher educational system, is funded from the revenues from oil and gas royalties.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The desire to recoup emissions has sparked technological innovations. Jason Libersky’s company, Quantigy Engineering, designs compressors that vacuum vapors off storage tanks.

JASON LIBERSKY, CEO, Quantigy Engineering: What we do now is basically provide suction to these tanks that just suck off the gases that would be normally be released to the atmosphere.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: And so this essentially is a vacuum cleaner?

JASON LIBERSKY: Exactly, a high-dollar vacuum cleaner.

(LAUGHTER)

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: That vacuum can cost upwards of $50,000. Infrared cameras can be twice that. Even this tiny control valve has a stiff price tag for small producers.

TOM MULLINS: The little item is a $400 item, so you can see that this items has — there’s two of those on this particular unit, so that’s an $800 item. Some of our marginal type wells might not make $800 profit in a year.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Oil and gas prices are low right now. But natural gas production in the U.S. is on the upswing, and is expected to grow more than 50 percent over the next 25 years. That means emissions are likely to increase, too, unless measures are taken to reduce them.

Last year, Colorado, New Mexico’s neighbor to the north, became the first state to clamp down on methane emissions. Now federal rules are in the works. Proposed EPA standards, when combined with other federal actions, could cut emissions from 2012 levels by 40 to 45 percent by the year 2025 and require semi-annual inspections of production facilities.

The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees public lands, mostly in the West, has drafted a new rule aimed at reducing wasteful flaring, venting and leaking of natural gas. But the details and timetable aren’t known yet.

Industry doesn’t want more regulation.

WALLY DRANGMEISTER: A good example might be something like the fact that they call for using of infrared cameras many times a year on every well. Well, that’s something that could cause low-producing wells that are late in their life to just become uneconomical and have to plugged.

Environmentalists say the EPA proposals are a good start, but don’t go far enough.

BRUCE BAIZEL: It wouldn’t cover a well like this because it’s — this is an existing well. It will only cover new wells. But you have got to get some kind of regulation in place in the first instance, and I’m real glad they’re doing that.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Still, no matter the method, cutting methane emissions is a goal shared by industry, government and environmentalists.

JON GOLDSTEIN: If you are concerned about climate change, it’s important for those reasons. If you’re concerned about waste of a natural resource, it’s important for those reasons as well. It’s really a win-win issue.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: I’m Kathleen McCleery, for the “PBS NewsHour” in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin.

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