Environmentalist: Methane emissions hurt benefits of natural gas

HOUSTON — The energy industry must continue to manage “fugitive emissions” of natural gas that release methane into the atmosphere if it wants to  maximize the fuel’s potential as a sustainable source of energy, the head of the Environmental Defense Fund said Wednesday.

Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said natural gas has massive potential as a sustainable fuel source. But he warned the release of methane — a greenhouse gas that can escape during production and transportation of natural gas — threatens the fuel’s potential as a greener energy source.

“We want natural gas to be as good as it can be for the climate,” said Krupp, one of the lone environmentalists speaking at the CERAWeeek energy conference in Houston. “The more methane that escapes, the more it undermines the advantage natural gas has over burning coal.”

Krupp’s comments come on the heels of a study released last month that found, when accounting for natural gas leakage from processing plants, wells and other infrastructure, methane emissions could be up to 75 percent higher than previous federal estimates.

Studies like those undermine the environmental benefits traditionally associated with natural gas.

“When we minimize methane emissions in a cost-effective way, we get a lot more benefits from switching from coal to natural gas,” Krupp said. “And you can begin to restore some of the halo from natural gas that has largely been lost in the last few years as an environmentally preferable fuel.”

Shell Oil Company President Marvin Odum said the company is collaborating with others in the industry to reduce methane gas, and said if it can be done in a cost-effective way, the industry could profit by reducing leaks.

He said Shell is committed to finding an economical way to deal with fugitive emissions. But, he cautioned, with the price of natural gas so low, that might not be an easy task.

“We’re finding all sorts of ways to do better from an environmental standpoint,” he said, adding that “it has to be affordable on top of everything else.”

Also on FuelFix:

Balancing act needed to win with hydraulic fracturing