Climate Now

Tracking Methane Leaks for Planet and Profit

July 17, 2023 James Lawler Season 1 Episode 106
Climate Now
Tracking Methane Leaks for Planet and Profit
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In September 2022, two pipelines carrying natural gas from Russia across the floor of the North Sea were sabotaged, rupturing and emitting an estimated 500,000 tons of the potent greenhouse gas methane (the primary component of natural gas) into the atmosphere before they could be sealed again. While the impact of these Nord Stream pipeline explosions on climate change was widely covered in the news, they represent a mere blip (about 0.3%) in the amount of methane unintentionally leaking into the atmosphere each year from oil and gas operations.

This week, we talk with Christophe McGlade of the International Energy Agency about why so much methane leaks from oil and gas infrastructure, and why - until now, its climate impact has been so little recognized. We also explore how new methane tracking tools allow companies and corporations to quickly and economically stop methane leaks, and why this could make a powerful dent in global greenhouse gas emissions.


Follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram.

Contact us at contact@climatenow.com

Visit our website for all of our content and sources for each episode.

James Lawler: [00:00:00] Welcome to Climate Now, the podcast that explores and explains the ideas, technologies, and the solutions that we'll need to address the climate crisis. I'm James Lawler. To sign up for our newsletter, which goes out every Tuesday morning with the link to the latest episode, background information, and relevant links, you can go to climatenow.com and enter your email address. To get in touch with us, email us at contact@climatenow.com. Today we are going to be talking about a greenhouse gas that often gets shortchanged in decarbonization discussions, and that is methane. Methane is so often overlooked because, while human activity produces nearly 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year, we emit less than 1% of that amount- only about 350 million tons of methane each year. But we need to be paying attention to methane because even that small amount, relatively speaking, packs a very large punch when it comes to [00:01:00] warming. Methane is about 30 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide on short timescales, and it is thought to be responsible for about 30% of the rise in global temperatures since the industrial revolution.

So in terms of decarbonization goals, it is just as critical to reduce methane emissions as it is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. And to do that, we have to understand where methane comes from. Now, you might be familiar with methane as the primary gas produced by livestock and from agricultural practices like flooding rice fields, but methane is also the primary ingredient in natural gas.

When we burn natural gas as a fuel to produce energy, it converts the methane to CO2 emissions. But when natural gas and other fossil fuels are extracted by oil and gas companies, some methane can be directly released into the atmosphere. That can happen through leaky infrastructure or from broken [00:02:00] pipelines like the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines that were sabotaged in 2022.

The question is just how much leaking is taking place and is it something that we should be concerned about? The short answer to those questions are a lot of it is taking place and we should be very concerned. For the detailed answer, I sat down with Christophe McGlade of the International Energy Agency to understand how we can track where methane leaks are coming from, how much methane is being emitted, and why stopping these leaks before they become super emitters is among the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to quickly reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. 

Stay tuned for that discussion today, but first, it's time for our news segment: This Week in Climate News. I'm joined by Darren Hau of the company Cruise to talk about the week in climate news.

Darren, great to see you. 

Darren Hau: Great to see you as well, James. 

James Lawler: So, capping off a week of crazy flooding in Vermont and, um, a punishing heat [00:03:00] wave across the south and southwest, which we're not really gonna talk about. There's a lot written about both of those things elsewhere, but we are very much aware that they're happening.

We're actually gonna dive right into a couple of news items that we saw that were maybe buried under those headlines, which, which are also quite important on vehicles, actually. So, Darren, do you wanna give us the rundown?

Darren Hau: Yeah, for sure. One of the interesting updates from this week is in the world of trucks and heavy duty transportation, as some of our listeners may know, we've been talking about this for a while.

California's Air Resources Board has enacted some pretty tough standards for fleets and truck makers to make sure that we can accelerate towards a zero emission future. Obviously, these are intended to be in the right direction, but there has been a lot of controversy because it puts a lot of strain on an industry that already operates on very thin margins, right?

There has been a lot of, kind of, upheaval to figure out, hey, how are these companies gonna deal with this? 

James Lawler: And so what did the state say initially? Like what was the, [00:04:00] what was the initial salvo there, and then where does it look like things are gonna, gonna resolve?

Darren Hau: Yeah, that's a great question. Maybe a bit of high level context, uh, California has always had this strange relationship with the rest of the country when it comes to vehicle emissions. California has almost always had this exemption to enforce tougher emission requirements on both passenger and commercial vehicles than the rest of the country.

Now, technically, that's only for California, but a lot of times automakers and truck makers will say, well, it doesn't make sense for us to build two different types of vehicles for California and the rest of the country. So-

James Lawler: Mm-hmm. 

Darren Hau: -practically speaking, California defines the regulations for the rest of the country.

This was particularly tricky with regards to truck and engine manufacturers, because California was setting some very aggressive standards, both in terms of moving to zero emission trucks, essentially that means battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell, as well as enforcing tougher emissions on legacy diesel engines in terms of NOx and SOX emissions, for [00:05:00] example.

James Lawler: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. 

Darren Hau: So, There was a lawsuit that was brought up between the truck makers, or at least a threatened lawsuit between the truck makers and California on this. But over the last week, they actually reached a deal and compromised, and, you know, I think we should celebrate this, right? Like this, this is- there are areas where we can compromise.

James Lawler: Mm-hmm. 

Darren Hau: And essentially what was agreed to was that, uh, California regulators are going to lax existing standards on NOx emission pollutions and make sure that they align with the federal government's rules. That just gives, you know, existing manufacturers more time to meet the requirements of the federal government has set up.

In return-

James Lawler: Mm-hmm. 

Darren Hau: -these manufacturers are committing and pledging to still satisfy the eventual zero emission targets. Essentially, they're basically saying, "Hey, you know, we all agree on the end goal, but how we're gonna get there is going to be massaged to take into account some of the realities of industry and the complexities involved".

Of course, I think if we all could wave a magic wand, we'd love to go to zero emission right away. [00:06:00] But the fact is, you know, there are practical industry challenges. If we enforce that right away, there'd be tons of trucking companies that would go out of business, inflation would go back up because we wouldn't have the, the vehicles to do this, so there's a balancing act to be struck. 

James Lawler: Indeed. So Darren, one of the topics we've covered a few times, which now has surfaced again in the news is electric vehicle charging standards and kind of the evolution of which automakers are on board for which standards and where the industry is going. 

And it looks like there was some news on that front as well this week. What happened there? 

Darren Hau: Yeah, we've covered the CCS versus Tesla NACS standard debate for a while, James, and you know, this was kind of inevitable, but it's just another step in the right direction. 

James Lawler: Mm-hmm. 

Darren Hau: The Society of Automotive Engineers, or SAE said that their plan is to certify Tesla's NACS standards by the end of the year.

Um-

James Lawler: And what's SAE, are they important? 

Darren Hau: Yeah, they're pretty important. Essentially, they're a standards setting organization, [00:07:00] Society of Automotive Engineers kind of says it in the name. They make a lot of standards related to vehicles. 

James Lawler: Okay. 

Darren Hau: One of the interesting things about SAE doing this is that they claim to be a body that can move this quickly because they aren't an intergovernmental organization the way ISO or IEC is. Those are two other standards organizations that often have an impact on EVs and charging, but SAE seem to be optimistic about their ability to move quickly. 

Now, one thing that's helped is that this connector already exists, so it's not like they're designing from a blank sheet. They can take a lot of the things that already exist, maybe adjust and modify it to make sure that it's not Tesla proprietary and that other automakers can adopt it, uh, appropriately. 

James Lawler: Mm-hmm. And just at a high level, once again, for folks who may not be as plugged in, so to speak, to-

Darren Hau: No pun intended.

James Lawler: - different charging standard, can you just give us the, the rundown again of what standards we're considering? 

Darren Hau: So there's really three standards that have been present in North America.

One is CHAdeMO. [00:08:00] That was a standard used for the Nissan Leafs, really a Japan-oriented standard. Frankly speaking, that standard is on its last legs. There's no vehicles except for the Nissan Leaf that still uses CHAdeMO. The second one is the combined charging system, so CCS. This is the standard that's used in Europe, although, to be fair, the European standard is a different variant than what we use in North America.

And then the third standard is Tesla's standard, which they came out about a year ago or a year and a half ago, and called the North American Charging Standard. But what was interesting to me was, SAE pointed out that NACS is an interesting standard, not just for DC charging, where most people have been focused on, but also on AC charging.

One of the reasons is that it can use an input voltage of up to 277 volts, whereas the alternative standard J1772, which is another SAE standard, uh, uses 208 to 240 volts

James Lawler: All right. The last story we wanted to flag this week is that the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, has finalized a rule for a [00:09:00] 40% phase down of hydrofluorocarbons.

Just as a recap for our audience, HFCs are one of several anthropogenic greenhouse gases that are produced and that are contributing to the warming that we're seeing. So the one that we hear the most about is, of course, carbon dioxide. We also have nitrous oxide, methane, and then there's several groups of these fluorinated gasses, so gasses that have some number of fluorine atoms that are, that are attached.

And these sort of fluorinated gasses have really interesting properties, one of which, unfortunately, is that they're extremely potent warming agents in the, in the atmosphere. Some of them are 10,000 times more powerful in terms of their warming than carbon dioxide.

They can hang in the atmosphere from one to 300 years, about 15 years, apparently, for most of the kinds of HFCs that are released as a result of its use in refrigeration and other, [00:10:00] other processes. So it's really quite meaningful that we're gonna be phasing these down aggressively over the coming years.

And so, This is a phase down program that is also accompanied by robust enforcement mechanisms to make sure, you know, that there's a level playing field for US companies that are complying with the phase down requirements. The announcement is that the rule states that there must be a 40% reduction below historic levels from 2024 through 2028.

Darren Hau: This is significant and hopefully will be followed by a more aggressive rule in the future. I think it's interesting to also point out, it's kind of ironic that, you know, the way a lot of people will have to deal with warming temperatures is to have more air conditioning, but the refrigerants involved in air conditioning themselves are potent greenhouse gas emitters, if not handled and disposed of properly. 

So I think this is an effort to solve that problem. 

James Lawler: Cool. Well thanks, Darren. We'll talk soon. 

Darren Hau: Sounds good. 

James Lawler: Now for our interview. Our guest today is Christophe [00:11:00] McGlade, who is head of the Energy Supply Unit of the International Energy Agency, and who joins us today to discuss the IEA's Methane Tracker, an interactive database of country- and regional-scale estimates for methane emissions and of abatement options for those emissions.

Christophe, welcome to Climate Now. It's great to have you. 

Christophe McGlade: Thanks very much. Pleasure to be here. 

James Lawler: So, tell us first about your background. If you, if you would, how did you come to do what you do at the IEA? 

Christophe McGlade: So I've been at the IEA now for close to 10 years, and before I joined the IEA, I was working in London on my PhD.

So it was looking at what the role of oil and gas would be in, in different scenarios, including what would be the impact of efforts to tackle climate change on oil and gas. 

James Lawler: Hmm. 

Christophe McGlade: So there was actually, there was quite a nice read across from that into, into the work I've, I've been doing at the IEA because what I do here is, is look at oil and gas under our different scenarios. What happens [00:12:00] to the demands, where does production come from? And then also lots of other aspects related to that. 

James Lawler: And so you got your PhD about it, was it about 10 years ago? 

Christophe McGlade: Um, close to 15 now

James Lawler: 15 years ago? I'm curious if you wouldn't mind sharing, how has your view of the future of the oil and gas industry changed over the last 15 years based on what you're seeing in, in terms of climate action and all of that? 

Christophe McGlade: Yeah, it's, it was interesting because the time that I started my PhD, you may remember there was a big discussion at a time about peak oil and a fear that we were running out of oil and gas and that was leading- going to lead to a big increase in prices and, um, big impact.

One thing that occurred while I was doing my PhD was an increasing realization that the problem wasn't that we didn't have enough oil and gas under the ground, it was actually that we had far too much if we are to undertake the efforts that are needed to tackle climate [00:13:00] change

So I had a bit of a pivot halfway through my PhD from looking purely at supply-side issues, looking at how much there was and where it might come from, to looking at more of a balance between how much oil and gas do we need under climate scenarios, under other scenarios, and where might that come from.

Since then, there has, I think, been a growing realization that we need to, kind of, really focus on how do we scale up alternatives to fossil fuels, whether that's electric cars or solar or winds or all the various technologies that there are, um, to help drive down the demand for fossil fuels and that supply will react to those demand signals. 

That's not to say we should ignore the supply-side issues entirely. And, and that's, that's where methane very much comes into it. There should be huge efforts on the supply of oil and gas. Make sure it's as low emissions as possible because we are not gonna be able to move away from it instantly.

It's gonna be in the system for, for some time. So making sure that even as [00:14:00] demand for oil and gas is falling, that we are producing it in a cleaner and cleaner way to make sure that the, the operations of the oil and gas industry don't contribute so much directly to, to climate change. 

James Lawler: And that is actually a good transition to today's conversation, which is looking at this relatively new tool that could help the oil and gas industry reduce its climate impact, and that is something called methane tracking.

Before we get into the methane tracker itself, could you help us do a little table setting? So, what is the relationship between methane and the oil and gas industry, and why is methane something that we should be paying attention to? 

Christophe McGlade: Whenever we talk about natural gas, that's 95-plus percent methane. So natural gas and methane are the, are the- are more or less the same thing.

And so when you are pulling natural gas out of the ground, unfortunately there can be some leaks of that natural gas and that- as in methane emissions to the atmosphere. And why that's a big problem is that methane is a really potent greenhouse gas. Per ton, it's much more potent than than CO2. [00:15:00] One of the features of methane, however, is that if you emit a ton today, it will have a very, very strong near-term impact on the temperature rise, 'cause it's so potent, but it does break down in the atmosphere or it's effect will, will, will, will drop off.

That's not the case with CO2. CO2, if you emit a ton of CO2, that's as good as up in the atmosphere forever. And it has a permanent impact on the temperature rise, but methane is really potent over a short period of time. 

James Lawler: Okay, so going back to the methane tracker, what does the tool do and how does it work?

Christophe McGlade: What we try to do in that is to pull together all of the information that's available on methane emissions from different sources around the world. So-

James Lawler: Okay. 

Christophe McGlade: -when we look at sources of methane emissions today, there's lots of natural sources, but we focus more on manmade sources. So agriculture, for example, cows, sheep, various kind of land use, they all result in a large amount of methane emissions.[00:16:00] 

The, the second biggest contributor to methane emissions today is the energy sector. So oil, gas, coal, bioenergy, they all result in a large amount of methane emissions. And then you also have things like waste, which is a smaller number, but still a very important number

James Lawler: What, what's sort of the difference between the- those different sources in terms of magnitude? How much more methane emissions are coming from agriculture than energy, which includes, you know, obviously, oil and gas?

Christophe McGlade: The agriculture and the energy sector are actually quite similar, so they're both on the order of, you know, 150 million tons, just slightly less than that, 150 million tons of methane.

So you could, you could convert that to, to CO2 equivalents. 150 million tons, let's say is about 4 billion tons of, of CO2 equivalent. Waste is down at about 30 million tons. But the, the key thing with all of this, you have to use very rounded numbers because the uncertainty in all of [00:17:00] these is very, very large.

And that's what we wanted to do as part of the, the methane tracker, was first of all, to highlight that uncertainty, but to make it a place that pulls together all the best estimates that exist. When we were looking at this back in 2017, one of the objections that we got a lot when we tried to emphasize the importance of tackling methane was people saying, "we don't know enough about this problem to know whether we should be, kind of, dedicating much effort towards reducing emissions".

And uncertainty was used as a bit of a slowing device to actually implementing action on it. And what we wanted to do in the tracker was pull together all the numbers to say, yes, things are uncertain, but we know enough to say that this is a big problem. And we also know enough-

James Lawler: Yeah,

Christophe McGlade: -to say that this is something we can do a lot about very, very quickly if we, if we got our act together. 

And so that's, that's the overarching philosophy of the, the tracker was to say, [00:18:00] put together all of these numbers and then say "what can we do about reducing emissions?". And because we are the International Energy Agency, we focus on the energy side of things, so we don't talk too much about how to reduce agriculture emissions. 

And you know, it's a very important discussion and lots should be done on that, but we put all our focus on how can we reduce methane from, from the energy sector.

James Lawler: And how does the International Energy Agency- what data is available to the IEA that is then used by the tracker to indicate, uh, methane emissions? 

Christophe McGlade: This is one of the really exciting areas on methane, is that there have been leaps and bounds of improvements in our, our understanding of methane with new sources of information becoming available. So when I think back to 2017, whenever we first put together our numbers, really the only estimates that existed around the world, reliable, measured estimates of methane were in the United States.[00:19:00] 

So there had been a great effort by people in, in the US to go around sites with, with cameras to really measure and, you know, fly balloons, fly planes, fly whatever, over sites to understand what leaks were occurring at oil and gas facilities

James Lawler: I, I just to- for an, for, uh, a sort of, um, neophyte question here, it would seem to be a very, very hard problem to identify the quantity and severity of methane leaks because you know, pipelines are many, many miles long and a leak could potentially be anywhere. Could you paint the proper picture for me? What is sort of the best practice when it comes to methane leaks and identifying how much methane is leaking?

Christophe McGlade: Yeah, I mean, the best practices right now, if you, if you are operating an oil and gas site, you should be doing leak detection programs all the time. And quite often, that is someone just walking around with a thermal camera, checking joints, [00:20:00] checking bits of equipment, checking wells, checking everything to make sure that there are no methane leaks, um, occurring.

And people have been doing that for a long time, you know, well managed, well operated facilities, they are doing those leak detection programs. Where the difficulty came is that if, if a leak was detected, The effort was often on, how can we fix this leak as quickly as possible? The effort wasn't, how do we measure how much actually came out of this?

We knew that leaks were occurring, we just weren't sure how big they were or how much had been leaked from them. And that's where you need to have real measurement efforts. You need to, again, be detecting things like how much methane is in the air around the facility. You know, that's, that's where planes play a big role.

For example, they fly over facilities and they take samples of the air and they compare it to the surrounding area. Um, satellites now will detect, again, atmospheric concentrations and, using some clever software engineering, you can then invert that to estimate what the [00:21:00] emissions are. And people are doing this very quickly now.

So we're getting very close to the stage now where you can start to use satellites for continuous monitoring. You could have a satellite zoomed in on your facility and have that going constantly, such that if a leak occurs, you get a, a ping. Someone tells you very quickly that something's happening, you know, go check what's go- what's occurring.

James Lawler: Are there business models yet that that oil and gas companies can subscribe to that give them real-time methane leakage data from space?

Christophe McGlade: There, there, there are companies that are sending up their own satellites to do exactly that such that you, you could subscribe to a service that says, can you monitor all of my facilities and just let me know if there's a leak.

There's also a public effort to do this. One of the things about satellites is that they have different roles. You have some satellites that can look at the whole world in a day, but they can only give you a very, very coarse resolution. So, They can't really tell you exactly where a leak is [00:22:00] occurring. They can tell you within a few kilometers, and you have other satellites that could zoom in on one very small area and tell you very, very precisely where that leak is coming from.

So, right now there's a public effort to use those satellites that have a, a very wide span to inform operators who might not be looking for leaks to say, well, we've found that there is a leak occurring around or close to one of your facilities. Maybe you want to go out and, and check that. And that, that's a, a public effort that is currently underway.

It's called the, the Methane Alert and Response System

James Lawler: Okay. And is this currently working? I mean, is there, like, a real-time map showing all of the worst methane offenders around the world and the- you know, social media could- everyone could gang up on them. Does that, Is that what's happening yet?

Christophe McGlade: It's currently in the pilot phase, so it's, it's really started at the beginning of this year.

But the aim for that will be that the first alert will go to who, who it is thought caused a leak. So if there is a, a detection [00:23:00] close to facility, you alert that operator as quickly as possible, and you also, at the same time, alert the government where that facility is, is operating. 'Cause the focus should be on, let's stop that leak as quickly as possible.

And some of those leaks are really, really big, right? Like huge leaks. The aim of MARS, as I understand it, is that off- you've given the government and the company the opportunity to address the leak. After a certain period of time, all that information will become publicly available such that you will, then- you will have a map available online.

It can just show there were leaks detected here, here, and here. They were this big. And then you can also click on them and see what happened to address them. But I mean, I just, just also to say that, that it's not just MARS that is looking at this data and you have seen an increasing number of newspaper articles about these big leaks.

One of the countries where a lot of leaks have been detected is Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan is a, an oil and gas producer, but some of the biggest methane leaks have been detected in Turkmenistan and the Turkmen government [00:24:00] and the regulator is aware of this. 

And, actually, you've seen that some of those newspaper articles, some of the attention that has been put on methane emissions from their facilities is actually leading to real progress because the- Turkmenistan and other governments are now working together to, to see how can we really reduce these emissions very substantially. So you've seen some agreements between Tur- Turkmenistan and the US, for example, to help address this issue because as I said, these are, these are big leaks.

James Lawler: Mm-hmm. 

Christophe McGlade: You know, they're often called super emitters because they're so big. 

James Lawler: Just so, because I think this is something that people will have, have, have read about, when the Nord Stream 1 and, and 2 pipelines were sabotaged and there was a huge, you know, huge release of natural gas. Was that one of these super emitting events or do we, do we have a sense of how much methane was released in that event versus let's say, the Turkmenistan-

Christophe McGlade: So absolutely, it was, it was a, it was a very, very big [00:25:00] event and, and obviously that would be best to avoid, but actually one of the things that we, we've shown in our methane tracker is that the equivalent of that Nord Stream event is actually occurring every single day across the global oil and gas operations.

So just these, you know, standard practices from- by oil and gas companies and smaller super emitting events, but still super emitting events that are occurring. You add all of those up, it's equivalent to having a Nord Stream-size event every single day. So that's why there should be so much focus on trying to stop those, those big leaks.

They're very hard to predict. They're very hard to know when they might occur, and they, they move over time and they move over, over space because sometimes someone leaves a latch open somewhere. Sometimes it's because a flare has gone out. Sometimes it's because some equipment has gone faulty. There's a whole host of different reasons as to why you can have a super-emitting event from oil and gas operations, but it's really important to work out why they're occurring so that [00:26:00] we can stop them from happening.

James Lawler: Okay, so we've been talking about the Methane Alert and Response System, or M-A-R-S , MARS, but that is different from the methane tracker that the IEA created. So let's talk about the IEA Methane Tracker and how that's meant to be used. 

Christophe McGlade: One of these is, is, as we were just saying, is that if you want to understand emissions today based on measured data, wherever it's available, there are no other sources available that, that do that. So the, the, the tracker is really, it's become a go-to place for understanding methane emissions from, particularly from the energy sector, but also from, from agriculture, from waste. The other thing that it's being used to do is to understand how we can tackle the problem, because we don't just want it to include the estimates themselves.

It's also, we also want it to kind of give a, a how-to guide on what countries or what companies can be doing to help reduce their emissions. So there's actually these roadmaps and toolkits that we have developed that countries can read, that companies can read, that [00:27:00] anyone can read to understand what they can do to help clamp down on the emissions.

James Lawler: And can you, can you give us an example of what one of those tools might be in those roadmaps or toolkits? 

Christophe McGlade: One of the things that we know about methane is that if you can stop the emission from happening very often, you can then sell that methane to make a profit. And so many of the measures that there are to cut down on, on methane emissions actually make you money.

James Lawler: So take us through some of those. 

Christophe McGlade: So for example, let, let, let's just take the, the one we are talking about, leak detection and repair. So this is someone walking around with a camera looking for leaks, looking for accidents that have occurred, and you have to pay that person and you have to pay for their thermal camera.

Or you could have a continuous monitoring system. You could be paying for satellite system to look at your facility. What we found is that, for leak detection and repair, very, very often, the cost of that measure is much less than the value of the gas that you then stop the leak, so you, you [00:28:00] stop that leak from happening, you can then quite often sell that gas.

We, we estimate that, of the oil and gas emissions that were occurring, last year in 2022, 2022 had very, very high natural gas prices because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. And what that meant is that 80% of the measures that are available would actually have paid for themselves. If we could think back a, a few years ago when gas prices were in a more normal range, there's still a huge amount of cost effective measures.

You could cut methane by 40% with these kind- no-net-cost measures because the payback is, is so quick. 

James Lawler: And so how much would you say countries or perhaps COOs of large oil and gas companies are tuned in to these efforts to track methane or to the potential financial benefits of monitoring for leaks? Is there a high level of awareness, or does that vary from place to place, company to company? 

Christophe McGlade: We do see a big difference between different parts of the world, the, the big oil and gas companies, [00:29:00] your Shell, BP, Exxon, those sorts of companies, they are aware that methane is a big issue and they're aware that we need to do a lot to cut down on those emissions as quickly as possible.

Similarly, the US and the UK are aware that methane emissions are big and they should be doing a lot about it. That awareness is not quite so big in other parts of the world. It absolutely is improving because of satellite technologies and because of other measurement campaigns. But the, the efforts aren't quite there yet in many parts of the world and in particular, we don't always see that the policies exist.

We really emphasize in the IEA that it's policies that are very important to cut down on meeting emissions because it tends to be the case if you know it's a problem and you put a polic-, a policy on to cut it down, it's actually much easier to reduce those emissions than you initially thought it would be.

It's also the case the oil and gas industry is very inventive. It's very innovative, and so when you set [00:30:00] them a problem, so you've gotta cut your emissions by 75%, they will come up with a solution to that. But it's very often the policies and the regulations need to be in there to give them that incentive for- to, to, to push them in that direction to make sure that you, you, you are really making sure that those, those leaks are, are coming down.

James Lawler: So, Christophe, you mentioned that in many cases, in terms of cost for natural gas, plugging these leaks would pay for itself by reducing the amount of methane they were leaking out into the atmosphere. So, why isn't that enough for companies to really put this at the top of their priority list and, and why are sort of punishing policies necessary?

Christophe McGlade: One of the issues is that, while there is a growing awareness this is a problem, companies might not fully be aware just how big a problem it is. One thing that we have seen is that when companies have gone out to really look for leaks, they see that emissions are higher than what they thought they would be.

And so this lack of awareness is, is a problem. [00:31:00] Now, we are improving very, very rapidly on that. We are getting better with the new satellites, with the new remote measurements, but we're not fully there yet. In other cases, unfortunately, it's, it could be a lack of awareness of just how cost effective it is to do this.

Companies just think, well, there's no regulation, there's no policy in place for me to cut down on methane so I shouldn't bother. We, we see a similar thing where- happening with flaring. That's where you just extract some gas from the ground, just burn it on site. That's better than releasing it as methane, but it's still a terrible waste of gas.

It's still a big source of CO2 emissions. It's also a source of methane emissions because the flares don't operate properly all the time. But companies still do this in many parts of the world because there is no strongly-enforced regulation to stop them from doing it. And again, when you tell them that they need to do it, they can find ways to stop it from happening.

To give you one example, look at the difference in flaring intensities between Norway and the United Kingdom. For every [00:32:00] barrel of oil and gas that the UK produces, they flare 10 times as much as Norway. There's no difference really in the types of facilities. I mean, it's, they're all in the North Sea.

It's just, Norway has put in really, really strong incentives and, and measures to make sure that operators don't flare. And the UK hasn't put in quite so strong measures. Now, the amount of flaring in the UK is, is much, much lower than in many other parts of the world. So we shouldn't just pick on them, but just, just that one example shows the importance there is of strong policies and strong regulations.

James Lawler: Right, right. One final question before we sign off. What is the outlook for energy sector methane emissions? That is, how fast do we need to reduce these emissions to stay within our current targets? And are we on track to do that? 

Christophe McGlade: To bring this back to what we think needs to happen to limit the temperature rise to, to 1.5 degrees, we need to cut methane emissions from oil and gas by about [00:33:00] 75% by 2030.

So we've got seven years to cut it by 75% and, unfortunately, emissions are still going in the wrong direction. We're not even reducing emissions yet. So we're a very, very long way away from where we need to be in terms of the trajectory for emissions.

James Lawler: What's the strategy to get us there? I mean, what, what is the, sort of, best thinking about the actual approach?

Christophe McGlade: Some of this is gonna have to come from governments themselves, putting in policies, putting in regulations. Some of it has to come from companies, and again, we, we see good efforts from some companies. When you think about the majors, you think of some of the, the well-run companies. They are, they have very ambitious targets for reducing methane.

The, the important aspect is to spread that coalition wider, to get more people on board. There's a good analogy with the oil and gas industry that the oil and gas industry doesn't compromise on safety. You know, they, they don't want workers to be injured or killed, and they don't compromise in any way.

They spend huge sums of money to stop that from [00:34:00] happening. They should have exactly the same approach to methane emissions, that they- there is a zero tolerance towards methane emissions and that in no circumstances should be letting it happen. If all companies did that, if all companies took that approach to methane in the same way that they approach safety, we would, we would be a long, long way towards getting on track for where we need to be. 

James Lawler: You'd think that that would be, for all of the oil and gas and, you know, for all of their interest in sort of trying to help their image, you'd think that for forming such a coalition that the Zero Methane Coalition that you could sign your name to that pledge, like that, that would be something they would want to do. Especially because it's in their, for the most part, at least, or most of the time, would be in their economic interest to do that, as we've discussed. Does that sort of thing exist yet?

Christophe McGlade: There are initiatives push- pushing in that direction. There's a, a group called the Oil and Gas Methane Partnership, which is all about transparency and measurement and reporting of emissions.

James Lawler: Yeah.

Christophe McGlade: And again, as I said, if you are really monitoring [00:35:00] and measuring your emissions well, you can reduce your emissions very significantly. Because it's very often easy once you know a leak is occurring. So there are some initiatives there that exist. One of the big problems is on financing. And I know we were just kind of talking about that, in many cases, it is the interest of the oil and gas industry because they should be making money. 

And also we should recognize that the oil and gas industry made a huge sum of money last year. We estimate about $4 trillion, the global oil and gas industry made last year. And so the primary push for cutting down on, on methane should be coming from the oil and gas industry, but there's still in parts of the world in low and lower-middle-income countries, they can not necessarily finance this.

It might pay for itself in the long run, but they can't get that upfront financing to, to, to cut down on those emissions. So that's where international support can really play a big role. And, um, that, that [00:36:00] money could come from those well-resourced oil and gas companies. 

You know, they recognize this is a global problem and that the, the industry is gonna be judged by the efforts made by everybody, not just, you know, the best operators so they could help to finance some of that because, again, they know that, um, that they'll get a payback for that if they can just kind of provide that upfront financing.

James Lawler: That was Christophe McGlade of the International Energy Agency, and we are speaking in particular about IEA's Methane Tracker, which you can check out yourself online at iea.org and about the United Nations Environment Program's pilot Methane Alert and Response System, or MARS. We will have links to more information about both trackers on our website, climatenow.com, where you can also find the transcript for this discussion and all our podcast episodes. 

That's it for today's episode. If you'd like to get in touch, email us at contact@climatenow.com. We hope you can join us for our next conversation.[00:37:00] 

Climate now is made possible in part by our science partners, like the Livermore Lab Foundation. The Livermore Lab Foundation supports climate research and carbon cleanup initiatives at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which is a Department of Energy applied science and research facility. More information on the foundation's climate work can be found at livermorelabfoundation.org.


Introduction
Guest Introduction
What is Methane?
The Methane Tracker
How to Catch Methane Leaks
The Benefits of Catching Methane Leaks
What the Future Holds for Methane Tracking