Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”
“New Actions to Reduce Methane Emissions Will Curb Climate Change, Cut Down on Wasted Energy” reads the headline from Wednesday’s White House blog, posted by Counselor to the President John Podesta (who will be leaving this post soon to serve as a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s presumed 2016 presidential campaign).
Let’s hope Podesta didn’t write the title, because it is completely wrong.
First off, methane isn’t energy. It’s a gas. Like anything else, it can be converted to energy, and like a fuel the conversion process produces more energy than it takes to perform it. But methane leaks from the oil and gas sectors no more represent “wasted energy” than does cow flatulence.
More accurately, methane leaks represent lost revenue. Or at least they would if natural gas prices were higher. With prices as low as they are, companies sometime find it more costly to stop the leaks than what they gain by capturing the methane and bringing it to market.
Consider that the price of natural gas is so low in many regions where oil is being extracted from tight shale deposits (for example, the Bakken region of North Dakota and in west Texas) that the methane that is produced along with the oil is simply flared (burned) on site, rather than being captured and brought to market. It is more expensive to develop the transport infrastructure (largely it has to be transported via pipeline) than the return on the sale of natural gas.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that in 2013, more than 260 billion cubic feet of methane was flared in the United States. In essence, this methane represented more “unwanted” energy than “wasted” energy.