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Colorado State & Partners Want to See How Low Methane Emissions Can Go

What can the natural gas industry do to capture more methane? Researcher Dan Zimmerle has more than a few ideas.

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December 2, 2019

As director of Colorado State University’s Methane Emissions Technology Evaluation Center (METEC), Dan Zimmerle oversees a test facility simulating the real-world workings of the natural gas industry. A collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, METEC replicates well pads, compressor stations, and the pipes between them. In this setting, Zimmerle and his team work closely with natural gas companies, environmental regulators, and advocacy groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to find the best ways to prevent methane emissions during natural gas production. METEC, which provides testing services to any interested party, is funded by a combination of the Department of Energy, industry groups, and companies developing leak detection solutions.

Replacing other energy sources, such as coal, with natural gas has driven America’s carbon dioxide emissions to 25-year lows. The production and transportation of natural gas, though, emits methane, a greenhouse gas. The industry is proactively tackling the issue and has already made significant progress, thanks to researchers like Zimmerle.

We spoke with Zimmerle about why reducing methane emissions matters, how to make methane testing more efficient and the future of energy.  

What’s the value of an entire center devoted to reducing methane emissions?

Dan Zimmerle

Natural gas has positive advantages as an energy source. We know how to keep it clean. We know how to transport it efficiently and safely. And it’s just going to become more important in the coming years. We want to make it as environmentally friendly as possible.

Methane isn’t the leading contributor to climate change, but it’s a potent short-term greenhouse gas. In terms of global warming potential, methane in the atmosphere is 80 times more powerful in its first two decades than CO2. That’s why methane is a good target to improve the environment in the next decade or two.

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There are many other people-driven sources of methane, including cattle, landfills, rice farming — the list goes on. If you go after methane from the natural gas industry, you’re only going after part of it, though it is the part that has the easiest knob to turn.

What are some of the ways you’re trying to turn that knob?

Operators use optical gas imaging cameras — using infrared frequencies — that allow them to see methane gas. We wanted to understand how well they worked. In a project sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Colorado State University and the American Petroleum Institute, 16 companies sent operators to METEC. We also had compliance teams from two states, the EPA and several counties as partners on the project. Even a team or two from Canada.

When we talk about emissions in the production and transportation of natural gas, it could be a valve that’s malfunctioning. It could be a leak in a pipe. It could be a compressor that has a faulty spark plug, or some kind of process failure. At our facility, we have 200 above ground leak points that we can control precisely to simulate real-world issues. So for the project, we set up a leak pattern, we sent the operators out to find the leaks. We had 30 days of testing across nine months. We had rain, snow, high winds, hot weather — you name it.

The operators reported what they found, and we learned experience matters. People with less than 400 sites’ worth of experience only found 60% of the leaks that someone with more than 400 sites of experience found. This is pretty substantial. We have the videos they shot. We can see what more-experienced operators did differently. Now, we’re looking to create training classes to accelerate this learning curve.

What is your vision of the future of energy?

The idea of transitioning to renewables over time makes sense. We need to get there, to be more dominantly renewable energy, but it’s going to take time. Done right, natural gas fits well with renewables…it ramps quickly, so it can fill in the valleys when renewables are not producing.

The real answer to natural gas emissions will be structural changes to the development of wells and pipelines, designing them from the beginning to be low emissions and easy to monitor. Some companies now are looking at creating “clusters” of wells, so that they’re easier to monitor. They’re also designing their equipment to be low emissions from the start.  

These innovations are part of a larger narrative in the industry. Many companies are increasingly seeing themselves as energy companies instead of fuel companies. They’re investing in multiple different types of energy sources, and they’re thinking about how to better deliver energy in a way that is better for the environment and also drives progress.

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