Managing Methane Could Buy Us Time to Cut Carbon

Energy, Mind to Market Blog

Even if we were to cease all human-caused carbon dioxide emissions today, the Earth would continue to experience persistent climate warming for decades due to CO2’s long atmospheric lifespan. Despite all we’re doing to cut emissions — altering the way we think about the industrialized world’s most basic building blocks — cutting carbon emissions will not be enough by itself.

Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas contributing to warming the planet. To have any hope of reaching the goal of limiting warming to 1.5–2°C, we must also pay attention to methane.

Methane, CH4, occurs naturally as a byproduct of wetland environments, but the vast majority of methane emissions today — 330 million tons annually — is the result of human activity. Primarily generated by the energy and agriculture sectors, these methane emissions contribute to about one quarter of the warming that the world is experiencing today. While humans emit CO2 at a much higher rate than methane (by a factor of over 60), methane has a far more severe greenhouse effect.

Over a 20-year period, methane gas contributes to more than 80x the warming than the same amount of carbon dioxide does. Luckily, when compared to carbon dioxide, methane is more potent and shorter-lived in the atmosphere. While carbon dioxide can stick around in the atmosphere for centuries or even millennia, methane’s atmospheric half-life is only about a decade. Reducing methane emissions quickly and dramatically would have a noticeable impact on global warming trends within the next two decades. As such, halving our methane emissions by 2030 could slow warming by around 30%, shaving 0.25°C off our predicted warming by 2050, and over 0.5°C by 2100.

Additionally, recent studies show that we can reduce our emissions by 57% utilizing current, already available technologies alone. And, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), as much as 40% of methane emissions from the fossil fuel industry — 9% of all human methane emissions — can be eliminated at minimal costs for companies.

That’s because methane is also significantly more valuable than CO2.

Methane accounts for around 30% of the world’s fossil fuel consumption as the primary component of what’s referred to as ‘natural gas.’ Burning natural gas for energy results in lower emissions — of nearly all types of air pollutants, including carbon dioxide — than burning coal or petroleum products (50–60% less CO2 is emitted by burning natural gas compared to coal) to produce an equal amount of energy. And unlike carbon dioxide, a byproduct of petroleum energy production, methane itself is a commodity, so companies have an economic incentive to reduce the amount of methane lost to the atmosphere. This is where enormous gains can be made — if the math can add up.

In recent years, the United States has become a net exporter of natural gas. Over 300,000 miles of natural gas pipelines crisscross the U.S., providing energy to consumers, businesses, and other countries. While natural gas is a cleaner and more efficient fuel, the transport and storage infrastructure accompanying it is aging and degrading at a time when demand is increasing, leading to leaks, pipe failures, and even explosions. These accidents, of course, have negative impacts on the environment and human health.

Like damaged goods or petty theft for retail companies, this “spillage” of methane represents lost revenue for energy companies. If affordable measures can prevent leaks in natural gas production, transport, and storage, these companies stand to benefit just as the environment does.

A 2018 study of natural gas facilities around the U.S. showed that methane emissions from America’s oil and gas industry are 60% higher than Environmental Protecting Agency estimates, due to transport and storage leaks and improper venting — as much as 7.1 million tons. Much of this can be mitigated by improving best practices and adopting new technologies.

Leak detection and repair (LDAR) is a vital process for all parts of the supply chain from extraction to distribution, as even small leaks can lead to catastrophic failure. However, by the nature of LDAR programs, the more frequently they run, the fewer leaks they catch, while each run costs the same amount regardless. LDAR also tends to have lower costs higher in the production stream where infrastructure is concentrated within a facility rather than throughout the length of a transmission pipeline. And so, companies often have a hard time economically justifying frequent, regular inspection and repair, particularly on transmission and distribution lines.

Every time a natural gas pipeline is vented or leaks, harmful, yet valuable methane is released into the atmosphere. This not only impacts the environment but means lost revenue and loss of a relatively clean-burning fuel supply. And so, with best practices not always being followed, new technology and innovation could lead the way.

Low-cost, high-efficiency technologies may offer a head start to energy companies for both their safety and environmental impact goals, and to their bottom lines.

For the past several years, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has supported Oceanit in developing a suite of nanocomposite surface treatments to improve the efficiency and reduce the environmental impacts and risks around our country’s aging energy infrastructure. With support from the DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), Oceanit has developed a novel, water-based surface treatment that prevents corrosion, pitting, and leaks in metallic pipes — and could significantly contribute to reducing methane emissions.

This innovation is called DragX.

DragX is a non-toxic, water-based nanocomposite that creates a slick, low surface energy passivating layer when applied to metal surfaces. When applied to the interior of a pipe, the omniphobic (water- and oil-repelling) properties mitigate corrosion and build-up by preventing anything from attaching to a pipe’s surface. It can be applied to long, in-situ pipelines of any diameter to increase efficiency — even on old, in-service pipelines.

Widespread deployment of DragX could be the key to mitigating leaks in fossil fuel supply chains around the world. It could minimize the risk of infrequent inspections by protecting the structural integrity of pipelines. Independent lab testing has shown that pipes treated with DragX are 36 times more corrosion-resistant than untreated pipes. That is, a pipe treated with DragX would take 36 years to corrode as much as an untreated pipe does in just one year.

DragX can also decrease the amount of methane vented into the atmosphere by minimizing debris buildup and allowing pipelines to run more efficiently for longer periods. When pipelines are opened for inspection or maintenance, the gas within the pipe is often vented out. Pipelines coated with DragX are resistant to adhesion and deposition of unwanted debris. With less buildup, pipelines run more efficiently and require less frequent maintenance and therefore less venting.

So-called “drop-in” solutions like DragX offer more than just environmental benefits — they make financial sense too. DragX can be applied in-situ to pipelines of all ages, so there’s no need to replace parts or dig up pipelines in order to deploy. It isn’t a big piece of machinery, nor does it require any additional maintenance. DragX simply reduces corrosion, mitigating unnecessary methane emissions and preventing lost product and lost revenue. While the environmental benefits should be reason enough, the added economic benefits encourage wider spread adoption.

Although reducing methane emissions sounds simple in theory, it will likely require continued government support to reach the levels necessary for significant savings in short-term warming. With support from the DOE, companies can weigh significant investments into emissions and leak prevention using affordable innovations like DragX.

DOE funding enabled the development of DragX, and with energy industry buy-in, Oceanit has successfully deployed DragX at three pilot sites for short-term monitoring and long-term durability testing. Test results have consistently confirmed DragX to be a commercially viable and economically attractive solution to provide significant drag reduction benefit, while also improving safety by mitigating corrosion, pitting, and pipe erosion — reducing leaks and lowering methane lost to the atmosphere.