Updates from Houston: Mitigating Methane Emissions from Natural Gas


Having spent my college years at Rice University, Houston will always hold a special place in my heart. I also remember experiencing my first hurricane there freshman year — the winds and rain were scary, but we hunkered down indoors and were fortunate to not suffer serious impacts. Watching Harvey approach from afar in August 2017, I again hoped for the best, but then the horror sunk in as friends posted photos and videos of unprecedented destruction. The National Weather Service had to develop new colors for its coding to account for the rain and floods caused by Harvey. The storm caused an estimated $190 billion worth of damage, disrupting industries and destroying homes. Only 20% of those hardest hit had flood insurance.

And we now know that Harvey was only to be followed too closely in North America by further heartbreaking, climate-related disasters: Hurricanes Irma & Maria and California’s sweeping fires. In the wake of these events, I am driven by the question: What can we do to decrease the chances that disasters like this will continue to hurt us?

In the fight to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, not all greenhouse gases were created equal. Carbon dioxide has long been cited as a significant culprit, but methane’s global warming potential is actually greater. Methane is the main component of Natural Gas, which is a fuel that likes to brag about being cleaner than coal. Yet, studies indicate that if natural gas emissions exceed approximately 3%, this fuel becomes worse for climate change than coal. In October, I had the chance to return to visit Houston for the EPA’s Natural Gas STAR and Methane Challenge Workshop. This allowed me to witness firsthand Houston’s inconsistent post-Harvey recovery progress and to learn more about some concerning practices that we must continue to push the natural gas industry to improve. The future of cities like Houston depend on it.

Step 1: Measure

EPA’s Natural Gas STAR and Methane Challenge program brings together a promising group of companies and perspectives to encourage the implementation of “Best Management Practices” and/or a commitment to ONE Future’s goal of limiting industry-wide methane emissions to 1%. Good stuff! What are the industry’s emissions now, you ask? Good question.

As technology improves, we are getting better at estimating how much methane is escaping throughout the natural gas value chain, but the industry still has a ways to go in accurately measuring these emissions. Right now, there are three main ways to calculate:

1) Emissions & Activity Factors. This basically means measuring emissions from certain activities (like distributing natural gas) and/or a specific component (like compressors), coming up with an average emissions rate for that activity or component, and then multiplying that emissions factor by the amount of activity (miles of distribution pipes) or the number of components (compressors). While this is currently the main way of measuring used today, its accuracy in representing actual, on the ground methane emissions remains in question, and it was considered a last resort by some conference panelists.

2) Measure gas quantity at Point A. Measure gas quantity at Point B. Divide to find the percentage of fugitive emissions that have gone missing somewhere in between. This “Lost and Unaccounted for Gas” metric is notably controversial. Most in the industry do not believe it’s a good proxy for actual emissions because of factors including: different quality meters used to measure at different points, gas volume changes due to temperature, etc.

3) Get out and measure at the locations where the emissions are happening. While such actual measurements are the goal, the current technology and frequency used to survey entire systems for leaks or intentional releases varies incredibly. The need for continuous monitoring at the sites and equipment most likely to leak is clear, but how to do so effectively and at reasonable cost continues to be a head-scratcher that gas producers and distributors are eager to have solved.

I was impressed to see several companies present their detection and quantification solutions during a Shark Tank-esque panel– American capitalism in action! A couple highlights included use of aerial drones as well as ground-level square footage “leak extent” tracking. Partnerships, pilot projects, and studies continue to move the needle on this critical issue.

 Leak Detection Technologies Panel

Leak Detection Technologies Panel

Step 2: Mitigate

As technology solutions continue to advance to better measure natural gas leakage, the pressure is on for companies to do what they can now to prevent and reduce emission-causing leaks. Such methods are already clear and being pushed forward. While environmental regulatory protections are being rolled back at the federal level, state authorities are now taking the reins and requiring industry-specific methane mitigation measures. States are not the only stakeholders with the power to resolve this problem. Industry leaders noted that other drivers include shareholder engagement, customer preference, and grassroots action. Climate change is a serious threat, and the natural gas industry is well aware that many stakeholders are concerned about the industry quickly reducing harmful methane emissions.

This stakeholder pressure is why companies are becoming more serious about monitoring for leaks strategically and with increased frequency, learning more about where leaks are likely to occur, and focusing on actions to efficiently repair or event prevent leaks by implementing existing best management practices like updating aging infrastructure and using other advanced technologies. Recent studies showing that most emissions come from a small number of large leaks emphasize the importance of companies taking meaningful actions to prevent the damage caused by such “super emitters.” While these are good first steps, the industry must continue to pursue smart ways to detect, avoid, and fix leaks to achieve significant emissions reductions at reasonable cost.

We know there’s a problem, and we need to act.

Returning from Houston, I was left feeling that inspiring progress is happening — but it’s not fast enough. I saw signs of industry leadership, but also signs of hesitancy and reluctance. The excuse that we need more research before we act only makes sense to a point — a point that the planet is too close for comfort to reaching. We are now having to use the words “unprecedented damage” with ever-increasing frequency in cities like Houston and beyond. It is clear that we must continue to work with and press natural gas industry leaders to quickly develop smart, cost-effective solutions to this complex problem. We simply can’t afford not to.