Two perspectives on fossil fuels and emissions – the methane problem

Last week, Exxon CEO Darren Woods told: CNBC in an interview that carbon capture would be the next big step in the effort to protect the Earth from overheating and that making hydrogen from methane would provide much of the world with an abundant source of clean fuels. Astute readers will note that both license Exxon to continue doing what it has always done: extracting hydrocarbons from under the earth and selling them for a profit.

The carbon capture thing is a dangerous illusion. Not only does the technology not work, even if it did, it would cost a lot more than just switching to renewables and eliminating carbon emissions in the first place.

The “blue” hydrogen scheme is equally dangerous. Converting methane to hydrogen creates massive carbon dioxide emissions to the point where it would make Earth’s excess carbon problem worse rather than better. The only benefit it would have is creating an income stream for Exxon shareholders and executives.

There is another problem with the ‘blue’ hydrogen plan. Methane and carbon dioxide emissions released into the atmosphere at drilling sites, storage sites and from pipelines are enormous.

RMI, formerly the Rocky Mountain Institute, has created an Oil Climate Index plus Gas (OCI+) web tool that tracks oil and gas producing resources around the world. In its latest report released last week, it ranks 135 of them – who together account for half of the world’s oil and gas reserves – based on a full life cycle analysis of their 2020 emissions.

The results show that Russia’s Astrakhanskoye natural gas field has the largest footprint in its supply chain due to major leaks in pipelines and other infrastructure “downstream”. Russia, of course, doesn’t care about emissions and has no intention of limiting them in any way.

Turkmenistan’s South Caspian Basin ranks second, and West Texas’ Permian Basin — which Darren Woods proudly refers to as an example of how good things can be — ranks third. Most emissions from the South Caspian and Permian basins occur ‘upstream’ during production.

Upstream is defined as related to production or wellhead emissions; midstream related to refining; downstream with regard to transport and end use (ie incineration). The dirtiest fields emit more than 10 times as much carbon dioxide equivalent as the least emission-intensive sites, the RMI report finds.

Methane & Oil

The world is focused on carbon emissions, but methane is actually a much more potent greenhouse gas. Where there is oil in the ground, there is also methane, but many oil producers consider it a nuisance and make no effort to capture it. They just let it float in the atmosphere. When governments try to tackle methane emissions, they scream about energy independence, national defense and that it’s just too damn expensive to capture the stuff.

Created by researchers from RMI, Stanford University, the University of Calgary and Koomey Analytics, the OCI+ tool and associated report conclude that significant emissions from fossil fuels occur not only at the point of combustion, but directly at the wellhead and during processing. refining, and transportation, according to Bloomberg† RMI estimates that the US Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas reporting program undercuts emissions from the oil and gas industry by a factor of two.

Methane is responsible for more than half of operational emissions at sites worldwide. By curbing the flaring and venting of the gas and ensuring oilfield equipment is working properly, upstream emissions can be significantly reduced, the report says, calling reducing methane “the top priority for the oil and gas sector.”

The RMI initiative is based on years of research by academics and non-profit institutions, public data and satellite imagery. It boils down to two questions: “Who has the worst barrel and who are the suckers who buy the bad stuff?” said Deborah Gordon, senior director of climate intelligence at RMI. That’s where the spotlight needs to be to fight climate change, she adds.

The report recommends purchasing fuel locally as much as possible to save transportation-related emissions. For Europe, even before the Putin-inspired war against Ukraine began, it is “horrible” to source methane from Russia because of leaks, according to Gordon. On the OCI+ map, the Russian pipeline system stands out in bright yellow and orange because of its concentrated methane emissions.

For decades, government policies have focused on reducing emissions from cars and power plants, placing consumer responsibility with little transparency about manufacturers’ emissions, Gordon says. “Conventional wisdom is that the consumer is responsible for 86% of barrel emissions.” But the research shows that this is not the case for the most polluting oil and gas fields, she emphasizes.

A price on carbon

Darren Woods told CNBC that Exxon is not against putting a price on carbon, but not saying how much that price should be. However, the researchers and the RMI are not so shy. They claim that OCI+ data shows that accounting for total lifecycle emissions — well to wheel, for example — would yield more than $50 per barrel for the highest-emission sites. If a fee reflecting the social cost of carbon were imposed today, the production-weighted average cost for the 135 fields would be $7 per barrel of oil equivalent, less than $1 for refineries and $4 for shippers, according to the analysis. The values ​​are based on a cost of $56 per ton that was modeled by the US government. Whether that’s the right cost to Earth and humanity for a tonne of carbon dioxide is a separate – and vital – question.

Aging oil and gas fields are becoming GHG-intensive because more energy and water is required to extract the fuel from the ground. According to previous research, the average emissions from a typical large oil field will double in 25 years. Two prime candidates for decommissioning are the Minas field in Indonesia and Wilmington in California, as they already need large injections, Gordon said.

The OCI+ web tool also analyzes a site’s share of emissions from flaring or burning excess natural gas. This practice is notoriously common in the Permian Basin, where oil is the most profitable fuel and natural gas is a nuisance by-product.

“The Permian looks terrible,” says Gordon Bloombergbut “if Texas cleans up its act and really focuses on not leaking methane and not flaring its gas, it’s going to be at the top” of the lowest-emitting areas.

The takeaway

Exxon CEO Darren Woods is pretty confident that his company will still be relevant and profitable 20 years from now. There are many who encourage him, who want to continue sucking hydrocarbons from beneath the Earth’s crust forever so that the merry-go-round of modern life can continue. The illusion that we are masters of our own destiny is strong. We assume that we can happily continue to do what we have always done.

We are distracted by the latest song or internet meme or Superbowl halftime show and have no time to imagine that life should ever be different. We hear that there are billions of people living in poverty and starvation, but we don’t really see that as a problem for our way of life in the industrialized world.

It’s not as easy to imagine a dying planet as someone with a bullet in the head leaking brain matter onto the sidewalk. We can’t see any carbon dioxide or methane so it’s easy to ignore them and just keep on partying. We fail to see that we are living in a cesspool of our own creation and that one day, very soon, we will drown in it, head over heels in the trash of our own existence.

There is only one way to save ourselves. Stop extracting and burning fossil fuels. The universe doesn’t care if a company had an unbroken record of stock dividends for decades or if someone amassed more wealth than anyone else in history. We will be erased from the cosmic record, just as the dinosaurs were erased, unless we act and act quickly.

Words like ‘existential crisis’ don’t scare us. We’ve all heard it before and yet the sun still rises every day and will continue to do so for billions of years. But soon there will be no more people on Earth to see it happen. We will be gone, extinct, no more. That we are so willing to run into that long night will be the enduring mystery of the human race.


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