Importing LNG from the U.S., to replace coal, makes sense for Europe only if the total emissions including those throughout the chain of production are lower than the alternatives. Julian Wettengel at CLEW looks at reports that say the total methane emissions from the world’s largest oil and gas field – the Permian Basin in West Texas – are particularly high and may push it over that threshold. Flaring, venting and leakage are the main cause. U.S. imports are also useful if the EU wants to lessen dependence on Russian supply. But EU plans for a methane emissions reduction strategy may result in a hard look at gas imports, says Wettengel. It may also result in U.S. producers raising their game through more climate-friendly production. A wise choice considering the U.S. hopes to become the world’s biggest LNG exporter by the mid-2020s.
The U.S. administration is aggressively promoting the country’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) to European partners, portraying it both as a supply that would help them diversify away from Russian gas and as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by replacing coal.
However, high emissions along the entire value chain of American gas deliveries challenge this sales pitch. A closer look at the world’s largest oil and gas field – the Permian Basin in West Texas, where much of the exported gas is produced – shows how methane emissions and flaring have reached levels that threaten the image of natural gas as the cleanest fossil fuel.
This could become an issue for transatlantic gas trade, because the EU is aiming for climate neutrality by 2050 and is currently drafting a methane emissions strategy that could ultimately decide where the continent sources its gas, based on the climate footprint. Many industry players in the U.S. are starting to see a competitive advantage in climate-friendly production.
Local pollution in Texas
The flare opposite Sue and Jim Franklin’s front porch was burning almost constantly, turning night into day. The couple recounts that before the intense drilling activity began in 2014, they could step outside into the complete darkness of the West Texas desert and gaze at the stars. Three years later oil and gas companies had drilled so many wells near their home that “you didn’t have a night,” says Sue.
Within a few years, the no-man’s land around their little town of Verhalen was completely transformed and the fumes, noise and lights destroyed the life they had, say the two owners of a rock shop that sells minerals and jewellery tourists and locals in the area. When an oil company approached their attorney asking how much they would want for their land, Sue and Jim made a deal and moved away in 2019. “We had to go. It makes you angry that you had to do that,” says Sue. “When Jim bought the place, he bought it to retire. To die on.”
At the time of the research for this story in February 2020, a huge drilling rig had been set up where their house stood just months earlier. Up and down the road, construction of new pipelines was taking place, flares burned at existing oil and gas wells and there was a constant flow of passing trucks hauling oil, extraction equipment, or water, chemicals and sand needed for hydraulic fracturing. The coronavirus had not yet fully hit the United States and new wells were still being drilled throughout the region.
USA: now the world’s biggest oil and gas producer
The couple’s former home is situated in the middle of what is known as the Permian Basin, the world’s biggest oil– and the United States’ second biggest gas-producing region. The flares that could be seen from their front porch are only part of the impact the industry in this area is having on climate change. Together with methane emissions, they challenge the promotion of natural gas as a low-carbon alternative to coal, which the U.S. is pursuing around the globe, including in the EU.
The United States has grown to become the world’s biggest oil and gas producer thanks to a boom made possible over the last decade by new extraction techniques, notably horizontal drilling and the controversial hydraulic fracturing – also known as fracking. While the rapid increase of extraction started under former President Barack Obama, the current government of Donald Trump has put great emphasis on sending the fuel abroad, so far mostly to Asia and Europe. The country has been a net exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) since 2016. It delivers to more than 30 countries and is set to overtake Australia and Qatar to become the world’s biggest supplier by the mid-2020s.
Much of that gas will come from the Permian Basin, a region in Texas and New Mexico with prolific growth and closer than many other fields to the bulk of the country’s export terminals along the Gulf of Mexico. “We’re unlocking the full oil and gas potential of the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico and sending it right here to you. […] And you’re shipping it all over,” Trump told workers at an LNG export facility in the neighbouring state Louisiana last year.
To European partners, the U.S. administration has offered gas not only as a way to lessen dependence on Russian supply, but also to help phase out coal, because burning it emits about 50 percent less CO₂ than the dirtiest coal – lignite. “As countries are trying to lower their emissions, for example under the Paris [climate] accord, natural gas has to play a significant role in it,” Shawn Bennett, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Oil and Natural Gas at the U.S. energy department, told Clean Energy Wire. [Also read the article Coronavirus crisis highlights risks of U.S.-European LNG deals diplomacy].
Permian basin: very high methane emissions
There is a catch: when it comes to the Permian, high greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry could mean that the climate benefits of U.S. natural gas over European domestic coal are all but eliminated. Two recent studies show that the flaring, venting and leakage of natural gas are a much bigger issue in the Permian than elsewhere in the country.
First ground and aerial measurements from the ongoing year-long project PermianMAP by advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and satellite observations show the highest methane emissions ever measured from a major U.S. oil and gas basin.
At 3.7 percent of the gross gas extracted, it is 60 percent higher than the national average in other research, and about three times the rate reported in the Environmental Protection Agency’s nationwide statistics. The amount of methane escaping from Permian oil and gas operations nearly triples the 20-year climate impact of burning the gas they’re producing, says EDF – one of the country’s most prominent voices on the issue.
The researchers see a bright side in their results because they see an opportunity to reduce methane emissions in this rapidly growing oil- and gas–producing region through better design, effective management, regulation, and infrastructure development.
As a greenhouse gas, methane (CH4) – the main component of natural gas – is more potent than CO₂, especially when looking at shorter time horizons. Reducing its emissions can effectively reduce the near-term rate of warming.
Leakage rates of 3-4% make gas no better than U.S. coal
Scientists have said in different studies that a leakage rate of about 3 to 4 percent should not be exceeded to ensure that burning natural gas has an overall climate benefit over domestic coal in U.S. electricity generation. Add to that emissions from liquefaction and ocean transport to Europe, and the allowed leakage rate is slightly less.
It is noteworthy that the Permian study’s 3.7 percent rate includes methane emissions from oil production. Differentiating between emissions from oil and gas production is especially difficult in this region. Due to the massive and lucrative oil development, gas produced by oil wells – which is called “associated gas” and is often seen as a mere by-product – makes up more than half of total natural gas production in the region.
Thus, as a “good chunk” of the gas headed for one of the LNG export terminals along the Gulf coast comes from the Permian Basin, what happens here is “extremely important”, Colin Leyden, an Austin-based oil and gas industry expert at EDF, told Clean Energy Wire. “Associated gas in the U.S. and in Texas specifically is not a niche market. It’s a big piece of the total gas produced.”
NBC report: https://t.co/fbG6BkkEwx
— TXsharon (@TXsharon) February 26, 2020
Europe to target methane emissions
The European Union has decided to tackle the issue. “Methane emissions harm the credibility of gas today as a transition fuel towards a decarbonised energy system,” the European Commission has said. As part of its Green Deal, the Commission aims to make the gas sector increasingly climate-friendly.
It sees reducing methane emissions as “a quick and cheap contribution to keep the global temperature increase below 2°C” and a valuable help in reducing the bloc’s overall greenhouse gas emissions by 50-55 percent by 2030, a target currently under discussion in the EU.
The Commission is working on a methane emissions strategy, covering measurement, reporting and verification across oil, gas and coal sectors and supply chains and possibly looking at other sectors too (agriculture, waste). The strategy is expected to be finalised this year and the Commission said it would introduce concrete legislation in 2021.
EDF’s Leyden welcomes the debate in Europe. “From a market perspective, large consumers have a role to play in making sure that they account for all of the climate implications all the way up the value chain if they are going to use LNG or natural gas as part of a transition programme,” he told Clean Energy Wire.
It is as of yet unclear what the methane strategy would mean exactly. However, strict standards would force natural gas producing regions across the globe to seriously tackle the issue – if they want to continue to supply the EU.
[The research for this article was supported through a Kellen Fellowship by the American Council on Germany.]
Julian Wettengel is a staff Correspondent for Clean Energy Wire
This article is published under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)”