Frackers, Shippers Eye Natural-Gas Leaks as Climate Change Concerns Mount
Cheniere Energy, EQT among those dispatching drones, planes and specialized cameras to collect data amid international pressure from buyers
A drone used to monitor methane emissions flies over EQT Corp.’s Captain USA natural-gas production site in Washington County, Pa., in July.By Collin Eaton | Photographs by Maddie McGarvey for The Wall Street JournalAug. 12, 2021 5:30 am ET
WASHINGTON COUNTY, Pa.—Drones darted in patterns above natural-gas wells in the hills of southwest Pennsylvania, as workers atop water tanks pointed specialized cameras, and a helicopter outfitted with a laser-light detection system swooped in low. All searched for an invisible enemy: methane.
The American gas industry faces growing pressure from investors and customers to prove that its fuel has a lower-carbon provenance to sell it around the world. That has led the top U.S. gas producer, EQT Corp. EQT -1.90% , and the top exporter, Cheniere Energy Inc., to team up and track the emissions from wells that feed major shipping terminals.
The companies are trying to collect reliable data on releases of methane—a potent greenhouse gas increasingly attracting scrutiny for its contributions to climate change—and demonstrate they can reduce these emissions over time.
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“What we’re trying to really do is build the trust up to the end user that our measurements are correct,” said David Khani, EQT’s chief financial officer. “Let’s put our money where our mouth is.”
Natural gas has boomed world-wide over the past few decades as countries moved to supplant dirtier fossil fuels such as coal and oil. It has long been touted as a bridge to a lower-carbon future. But while gas burns cleaner than coal, gas operations leak methane, which has a more potent effect on atmospheric warming than carbon dioxide, though it makes up a smaller percentage of total greenhouse gas emissions.
Investors, policy makers and buyers of liquefied natural gas, known as LNG, are rethinking the fuel’s role in their energy mix because of concerns about methane emissions, which were highlighted this week as a significant contributor to climate change by a scientific panel working under the auspices of the United Nations.
Those concerns, pronounced in Europe and increasingly in Asia, are a problem for LNG shippers, as some of their customers signal plans to ease gas consumption over time. In a policy draft last month, Japanese regulators said the country would have LNG make up 20% of its projected power generation by 2030, down from a prior target of 27%. The European Union has been weighing how to pressure LNG shippers to cut emissions. It could, for example, include LNG among the imports subject to a recently proposed carbon border tax.
Nearly every industry now faces some pressure to reduce its carbon footprint, as investors focus more on ESG—or environmental, social and governance—issues and push companies for trustworthy emissions data. But the pressure has become particularly acute for oil-and-gas companies, whose main products contribute directly to climate change.
Producing, transporting and ultimately burning one metric ton of LNG releases the greenhouse gas equivalent of about 3.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to a U.K. government estimate, about a quarter of which are emitted before the fuel reaches a power plant.
Though the world is now devouring natural gas as economies emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, shale executives said keeping U.S. supplies competitive longer-term will require companies to corral leaks from wells, processing facilities, pipelines and the export plants before tankers carry it around the world. The tricky part, they said, is proving to skeptics they are actually doing so.
Cheniere, the largest U.S. LNG exporter, this summer began leading a joint effort with EQT, the largest gas producer, and four other domestic producers including Pioneer Natural Resources Co. , to figure out the most effective way to monitor and quantify methane emissions.
Over six months, the companies and researchers plan to test drones, specialized cameras that can see methane gas, and other technologies across about 100 wells in the Marcellus Shale in the northeast U.S., the Haynesville Shale of East Texas and Louisiana, and the Permian Basin of West Texas and New Mexico.
The goal is to collect methane emissions data and see how it stacks up against current estimates from U.S. environmental regulators, which critics consider overly conservative as their underlying data isn’t based on continuous measurements. The companies will then decide which technology is the most effective when deployed on a larger scale for continuous monitoring of methane leaks, and which ways to best cut emissions.
EQT has said it would spend $20 million over the next few years to replace leaky pneumatic devices, which help move fluids from wells to production facilities and water tanks, with electric-drive valves, executives said. They expect that will cut about 80% of the company’s methane emissions. The company also began exclusively using electric-powered hydraulic fracturing equipment last year.
Cheniere delivered what it called its first carbon-neutral cargo to Royal Dutch Shell PLC in Europe in April, by purchasing carbon offsets from Shell. It also plans to provide customers next year with data on emissions tied to each shipment it sends from its two Gulf Coast export facilities. That data, contained in Cheniere’s so-called cargo emissions tags, will be based on its analysis of emissions from its supply chain.
The LNG shipper expects its analysis will show a range of emissions from gas producers, pipelines and exporters, but that emissions from the gas it gathers will be comparatively low, said Anatol Feygin, Cheniere’s chief commercial officer.
Mr. Feygin said the U.S. gas industry hasn’t “done a good job of getting the transparent, auditable information” it needs to back up its claim that it has been curbing emissions, and that collecting that data will be critical for the industry’s social license to operate going forward. Cheniere hasn’t yet announced any partnerships with pipeline companies that transport gas, another area where it said its efforts will need more work.
“It’s going to take a very long time to migrate the entire supply chain,” Mr. Feygin said, describing the ultimate goal as “high-quality, real-time information.”