Methane Leaks Getting Better – May 10, 2015

Today we talk about five things in the news between April 26 and May 10, 2015:

  1. Colorado Legislature Wraps With Little Fracking Damage
  2. Senate Looks at Fracking, and Infrastructure, Fracking, and Climate
  3. Crude Exports Hit the Senate Floor
  4. Texas Bans Fracking Bans
  5. House Moves EPA Rebuttal and Energy Budget

Our interview is with Washington State University Professor Brian Lamb, the author of a recent study on methane emissions from local natural gas distribution systems.

Click below to listen or find us on iTunes or Stitcher.

1.  Colorado Legislature Wraps With Little Fracking Damage

Last year, Colorado Democratic Congressman Jared Polis and a coalition of environmental groups backed  two measures that were put on the Colorado ballot for the 2014 election.  They would have made sure that local governments could stop hydraulic fracturing operations if they wanted.  Colorado’s Democratic Governor, former oil-industry geologist John Hickenlooper, wanted no part of the ballot fight and brokered a truce.  The ballot measures were withdrawn and replaced with a new Oil and Gas Task Force to address fracking issues.

The task force put out nine recommendations.  They were all fairly unremarkable, at least compared to the local bans that could have been allowed if the initiatives passed.  The legislature took even less action against fracking than the task force recommended.  As the Colorado Statesman put it:

The General Assembly took the safe route by approving funding for recommendations made in February by the governor’s Oil and Gas Task Force. Those include new inspectors and monitors for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and Department of Public Health and Environment.

And that was about it — until Wednesday, when the Senate gave last-minute approval to a bill requiring ballot petitions and initiatives to be accompanied by a fiscal impact statement, which is expected to hamper the chances of anti-fracking ballot efforts.

The article also noted that the group Coloradans Against Fracking gave the legislature an “F” for their efforts.  Future restrictions on drilling are hard to see, however, especially with Rep. Polis showing little further interest.

2.  Senate Energy Looks at Fracking, Projections, and Infrastructure

The U.S. Senate had a number of interesting hearings over the past couple weeks.  On April 28, the Senate Energy Committee heard from Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz on the Quadrennial Energy Review.  The review called for lots of new spending on infrastructure, but Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) reminded the Secretary that federal government regulatory approvals are also important for privately-financed infrastructure projects.

The Senate Energy Committee also held a subcommittee hearing on the Bureau of Land Management’s hydraulic fracturing rule on April 30.  This hearing was largely the Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) show, as he is the subcommittee chair and has shown a lot of concern about the BLM putting duplicative rules on drillers in his state.  Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) asked some very sharp questions about BLM’s reasoning for the rule.  The BLM justifies the rule by saying some states are not regulating sufficiently, but the agency has not offered any examples.  The BLM says it will stick to state regulations where appropriate, but it is not clear what states will be impacted.  If the BLM defers to state regulations in states like Wyoming and Utah, the rule may not have much negative impact.

On May 5, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on the legal implications of the Clean Power Plan.  This hearing was largely the Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) show.  It was held in her subcommittee, and she has major concerns that the Clean Power Plan will hurt West Virginia’s coal industry.

At the hearing, Sen. Capito explored the legal authority of the rule to regulate more than just the powerplant itself.  She also asked about irreversible impacts of the rule, even if it is later struck down in court.  Finally, she noted that both West Virginia and Oklahoma are taking a stand against the rule.  Democrats, like Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), were largely left to simply object to the focus of the hearing and the disregard for climate change impacts.

3.  Crude Exports Hit the Senate Floor

Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) took to the Senate floor on April 29 to urge their Senate colleagues to support an amendment to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Act that would end the 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports and allow American producers to compete with Iran on the global market.  Crude oil exports are much more controversial than natural gas exports, so any step towards relaxing crude exports would likely also ease gas exports.

Sen. Murkowski called for the United States to act as an energy superpower.

Sen. Heitkamp argued that the U.S. oil production was what drove Iran to the bargaining table in the first place.

4.  Texas Bans Fracking Bans

The Texas legislature has been busy stopping local communities from shutting down fracking, even though it it unclear if much production was really being stopped by local bans.  The Washington Post reported:

Lawmakers in America’s largest oil-producing state scrambled to limit local energy exploration prohibitions after Denton, a university town near Dallas, passed an ordinance in November against hydraulic fracturing or fracking, attempting to keep encroaching drilling bonanzas outside their community.

….

The bill last month overwhelmingly cleared the House, which Republicans control by a 2-to-1 margin, and passed the GOP-dominated Senate almost as easily Monday — sending it to Gov. Greg Abbott, who is expected to sign it into law. The issue has been among the most contentious in the new Republican governor’s first legislative session, and while Abbott has stayed publicly out of the debate, he has criticized local regulations that he says limit individual liberty.

 5.  House Moves EPA Rebuttal and Energy Budget

On April 29, the full Energy and Commerce Committee moved its Ratepayer Protection Act, which is House Republicans’ rebuttal to the President’s Clean Power Plan.  The bill passed on a strict party line vote, and does not appear to have much hope for bipartisanship.  It passed the Committee on a strict party-line vote, and it will likely pass the House on a similar party-line vote soon.  The hearing featured many of the same arguments we have covered before.  Republicans want states to be able to wait until the regulation is challenged in court.  Republicans also want states to have an escape hatch from the regulation if it will harm rates or reliability.

Interview on Methane Leaks with Washington State University Professor Brian Lamb (Starts at 30:07)

In March, a group of researchers led by Washington State University’s Brian Lamb published a study called “Direct Measurements Show Decreasing Methane Emissions from Natural Gas Local Distribution Systems in the United States.”  It was part of 16 studies funded by the Environmental Defense Fund, a moderate environmental group.  It received a lot of news coverage, including articles in Fuel Fix and the New York Times.  

Prof. Lamb has been at WSU for more than 30 years, working with the University’s Laboratory for Atmospheric Research.  The laboratory was involved in a study by the Environmental Protection Agency and Gas Research Institute in the 1990s that looked at methane emissions.  When the Environmental Defense Fund was looking to update that 1992 EPA study, it reached out to Prof. Lamb and his team.  The update is important, because the EPA continues to publish greenhouse gas emissions data that relies on the 1992 findings.  Methane leaks appear to have gone down since that time.

The EPA “inventory approach” utilizes two basic numbers.  First, a given source of emissions is given an “emission factor.”  That emission factor is then multiplied by the “activity count.”  For example, the average methane leakage per mile of pipe is multiplied by the existing miles of pipe.  The EPA has not updated its emissions factors.  That means that right now, to reuse the example, the EPA is using the latest data on miles of pipe multiplied by 1992 data on leaks per mile.

The new WSU study relied on data from natural gas distribution companies across the country who volunteered to participate.  These companies survey their pipelines on a regular basis for safety purposes.  They basically survey 20% of their pipes each year.  They pass over their pipelines with a “methane sniffer” to detect any methane leaks.  The companies grade each leak.  A grade one leak is dangerous and immediately fixed.  Grade two or three leaks are less dangerous and are scheduled for repair on some regular interval.

Prof. Lamb’s team took the list of leaks and randomly selected some of them for measurement.  They then measured the leaks to calculate an “equivalent leak,” which is essentially an average for a given type of leak.  The leaks measured were on both “mains,” the large pipes that run throughout a city, and “services,” which are the smaller pipes that branch out from a main to connect to customers.  The study looked at different types of pipes, including plastic, unprotected steel, protected steel, and cast iron.  Ultimately, the team combined their new data on equivalent leaks with the number of reported leaks on each type of pipe to come up with an average leak rate for each type of pipe.

The WSU study found that leaks are pretty much the same for a given type of pipe no matter where in the country you are.  Overall methane leaks do vary by region, however, because different regions have different mixes of pipe.  Cast iron is the oldest type of pipe and it is relatively leaky.  Companies are actively working to replace cast iron.  Unprotected steel and protected steel are far better than cast iron, but plastic is the best pipe for preventing methane leaks.

Prof. Lamb explained the different types of equipment used to measure methane leaks.  Companies checking their pipelines typically use a “methane sniffer,” which is a simple handheld device, to measure methane leaks with digital infrared technology.  This gives an instantaneous reading.  Leaks discovered with a sniffer are usually then measured with more precise measures, and the WSU study used more precise measures as well.  One example is a “hi-flow sampler.”  That uses similar measuring technology, but also includes an enclosure that covers the surface area where a leak is coming from.  Air is then drawn through the enclosure, so most all the methane is captured and run through the measuring device.  The researchers put together a handy video on their measuring techniques.

The biggest finding in the study is that leaks from metering and regulating (M&R) stations have come down dramatically.  These facilities are located throughout the pipeline grid to regulate gas pressures.  The methane leak reduction was so dramatic that the researchers went to nine of the stations included in the 1992 study to measure again and figure out what happened.  They found that in most cases equipment had been upgraded.  Older equipment was often designed to regularly release small amounts of methane in its operations, while newer equipment has lower or no emissions.  On pipes, the study found a drop in leaks, but it is less dramatic than the M&R stations.  The drops are attributed to better maintenance and a shift to less-leaky types of pipe.  Required reporting of emissions seems to have  driven much of the improvements, as grid operators tend to fix problems they are aware of.

Prof. Lamb answered some of the criticisms about his study.  The main criticism of the study is that it relied heavily on companies that wanted to demonstrate low emissions.  Prof. Lamb said the leak data was created by companies to meet safety reporting standards for the U.S. Department of Transportation, so it is unlikely to be skewed.  Additionally, the researchers made measurements at random locations chosen without collaborating with the companies.  Prof. Lamb said the one criticism that is fair is that the study relied on companies volunteering for the study.  It is possible only the best companies would volunteer.

The researchers have a great website set up with additional information on the study at methane.wsu.edu.  The full study is available online from the March 31, 2015 edition of Environmental Science & Technology.