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10 technologies can make oil and gas industry money - and protect health, environment

Vignesh Gowrishankar

Posted March 28, 2012 in Curbing Pollution, Solving Global Warming

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NRDC today released a new report titled Leaking Profits: How the U.S. oil and gas industry can reduce pollution, conserve resources, and make money by preventing methane waste” that highlights the top 10 available technologies that can do just that.  

In a nutshell, the report finds that:

  • Vast quantities of natural gas are currently allowed to leak into the atmosphere by the oil & gas industry – leaks that worsen global warming, affect human health, damage the environment, waste irreplaceable resources and squander valuable industry profits.
  • We have the technologies to prevent this waste – technologies that are technically feasible and commercially profitable.  
  • The 10 technologies identified in the report, if comprehensively implemented, can profitably capture more than 80 percent of the methane currently emitted by the oil & gas industry, an amount equivalent to global warming pollution from more than 50 coal-fired power plants. Also, the oil & gas industry can generate $2 billion in additional revenue from these methane savings.
  • EPA should require the oil & gas industry to adopt these methane control technologies, which will benefit the public while actually making them money.

Natural gas is practically all methane. In fact, the U.S. oil & gas industry emits 37 percent of the total methane emissions in the country. Methane represents a large and growing source of global warming pollution: in 2009 it accounted for 10.3 percent of total U.S. global warming pollution. And it is a powerful global warming pollutant – pound for pound, methane is at least 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Read Dan Lashof’s blog discussing why methane pollution controls for the oil & gas industry are imperative.

Currently, when natural gas is extracted by hydraulic fracturing or other techniques, significant amounts of methane are wasted: from wells during the extraction process, from processing equipment while compressing or drying gas, and from poorly sealed equipment while transporting and storing it. Natural gas is also sometimes intentionally vented into the atmosphere, for example after stimulation operations when hydraulic fracturing fluid containing methane flows back to the surface. In fact, at least 2 to 3 percent of all natural gas produced by the U.S. oil & gas industry is lost to leaks or vented into the atmosphere each year. Other estimates suggest that the waste may be even higher.

This really need not be the case. Let’s take a look at the top 10, tried, tested, and truly profitable methane control technologies that the oil and gas industry can implement:

  1. Green completions: capture vented, leaked or otherwise wasted natural gas from wells as they are being stimulated (fracked) and readied for natural gas extraction.
  2. Plunger lift systems: remove blockages caused by liquids accumulation in older wells, in a way that captures methane.
  3. TEG dehydrator emission controls: reduce methane leakage from TEG dehydrators, which remove moisture from natural gas before it is transported, using additional equipment and process optimization.
  4. Desiccant dehydrators: nearly eliminate methane leakage during the process of removing moisture from natural gas, with the use of special water-absorbing salts.
  5. Dry seal systems: mitigate methane leakage from centrifugal compressors, which are used during natural gas processing and pipeline transportation, with the use of more effective seals.
  6. Improved compressor maintenance: controls leakage from reciprocating compressors, also used during natural gas processing and pipeline transportation, through timely rod packing replacements.
  7. Low-bleed or no-bleed pneumatic controllers: limit leakage from pneumatic controllers, which control gas pressure and flow, with the use of special reduced-leakage (“low-bleed” or “no-bleed”) systems.
  8. Pipeline maintenance and repair: allows for methane flowing through pipelines to be captured while problems in pipelines are fixed.
  9. Vapor recovery units: capture methane leaked from crude oil when it is stored in tanks.
  10. Leak monitoring and repair: detects and captures methane leaks, which are typically colorless and odorless, from numerous locations at an oil & gas facility, using advanced leak monitoring equipment and enhanced operational practices.

 pie chart.PNG

As I mentioned, these technologies are extremely profitable. There is typically an upfront cost associated with them, but the revenue generated from saved methane and any operational savings (less any costs) more than compensate – the investments are typically paid back in less than six months to three years. And profits continue after that.

Yet, industry has not adopted these technologies across the board. While some companies have voluntary adopted such technologies through the EPA’s Natural Gas STAR program, most have so far chosen to divert their capital toward more profitable ventures. But with such incredible public health and environmental benefits, EPA and the federal and state governments should make these 10 technologies a requirement.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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