The US Natural Gas Industry: Surging Throughput, Falling Methane Emissions

The US Natural Gas Industry: Surging Throughput, Falling Methane Emissions
AP Photo/Gregory Bull

Natural Gas and Methane

The U.S. natural gas business has been booming over the past decade. Since the shale revolution took flight in 2008, production has risen over 50% to 88 Bcf/d. With gas emitting 50% less CO2 than coal, and 30% less than oil, more gas has cut CO2 emissions in the U.S. power system to their lowest levels since 1985

Utilities have made clear that gas is the go-to fuel for electricity and as the back-up needed to compensate for the natural intermittency of wind and solar power, for when the "wind isn't blowing" and "the sun isn't shining."

For these reasons, more gas is the cornerstone of the U.S. (and even global) grand energy strategy to grow the economy while also combating climate change. 

Although most know about more gas meaning less CO2, one area of improvement for the U.S. natural gas industry that typically goes understated is the drastic improvement in reducing methane (CH4) emissions. This is no small feat of course: natural gas, after all, is itself, methane. Gas is comprised of 95% CH4.  

These reductions in methane are essential because CH4 is also a strong greenhouse gas. So, the more the industry can slash them, the more sustainable its core business becomes. 

Well below CO2's share of 82%, methane is about 10% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The oil and gas business accounts for a quarter of all U.S. methane emissions, indicating that oil and gas accounts for a paltry 2.5% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. 

Not too shabby for an industry that supports over 10.5 million jobs, supplies 65% of our total energy, and generates 37% of our electricity, not to mention adds at least hundreds of billions of dollars in economic benefits every year.  

Methane is a product of course, so the gas industry is naturally incentivized to cut its leakage into the atmosphere. This helps explain why companies have significantly reduced CH4 emissions without the overbearing and unnecessary regulations that many now want to unwisely saddle the industry with. 

The technologies to reduce all emissions across the entire oil and gas value chain continue to improve with undeniable proven success. As just one example, the CH4 footprint continues to shrink while production and consumption continue to climb. 

Data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gases and Sinks: 1990–2017 demonstrate the progress by the oil and gas industry when it comes to cutting methane emissions despite so much more throughput. 

Let's focus on natural gas because it is easily our fastest growing major fuel for demand.  

Key Findings From EPA Data Reporting

Since 1990:

  • Annual methane emissions from gas distribution systems have fallen 70-75%, despite the fact that gas utilities have added over 730,000 miles of pipeline to serve almost 20 million more customers.
  • The gas emissions rate of production from distribution systems is now less than 0.1%.
  • Industry-wide natural gas emissions as a rate of production (the "leakage rate") is 1.2%, well below the threshold required to justify fuel switching to gas on environmental grounds. 
  • The ratio of methane emissions per unit of gas produced has plummeted around 45%.  
  • Despite a 55% jump in production, total methane emissions from gas systems has fallen 18%. 

The Future is Bright

This progress in reducing methane emissions for the U.S. natural gas industry is no surprise. Safety is a requirement for sound business operations, and the ability to continually curtail emissions positions natural gas as the go-to fuel to combat climate change here and around the world. Gas companies know that they must remain vigilant and constantly upgrade infrastructure through risk-based integrity management programs. 

For example, using 2010 as the baseline, Dominion Energy recently announced an industry-leading initiative to slash methane emissions from its natural gas infrastructure by 50% over the next decade. This will prevent more than 430,000 metric tons of CH4 from entering the atmosphere. For comparison sake, that is the equivalent of taking 2.3 million cars off the road for a year, or planting nearly 180 million new trees. 

These major declines in methane emissions are just another reason why natural gas is widely being promoted as a "destination fuel," playing a major role in both the current global "energy transition" and the future energy world beyond it. 

Jude Clemente is the Editor at RealClearEnergy. 

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