Thu, Jul 18 2024 18 July, 2024

Pollution from “certified gas” going undetected, says new report

U. S. gas producers, using third-party “certified gas” pollution monitoring, claim they are cleaning up their operations. But an investigation by environmental NGOs in Colorado found pollution events that are not picked up by monitors.

An oil and gas drilling operation and the front range of the Rocky Mountains near Denver, Colorado (Photo: Adobe Stock/Simon Foot)

Pollution monitoring technologies that claim to ensure low methane leaks at oil and gas production sites are not working as advertised, according to a new report.

Gas companies are increasingly marketing their product as having low methane emissions, citing “certification” schemes from third-party accreditation firms. But a group of environmental NGOs conducted field surveys with optical gas imaging cameras and found that pollution monitoring technology routinely fails to detect pollution events.

Third-party certification typically entails installing several sensors at a drilling site or a gas storage hub, with the sensors recording data constantly. Known as “continuous emissions monitors,” or CEMs, the system is intended to have eyes trained on site pretty much at all times.

But the sensors used to monitor methane and other air pollutants often fail to detect significant pollution events and they are even frequently offline, according to a new report from Earthworks and Oil Change International.

Using optical gas imaging cameras, which can detect various pollutants not visible to the naked eye, the Earthworks team conducted 81 surveys at 38 different oil and gas sites over a ten-month period in Colorado in 2023.

They found 23 separate instances in which the site was emitting significant volumes of pollution. However, only one of those events was detected by the third-party monitors and reported to the state.

“The industry realizes that it is having its social license to operate questioned as we continue to fail to meet emissions reductions targets. And this is one of the lifelines that they are trying to hang their social license to continue to operate on,” Dakota Raynes, research and policy manager at Earthworks, told Gas Outlook, referring to various gas certification labels.

“But it’s not working.”

The concept of “certified gas” or “responsibly-sourced gas” has emerged in recent years as concerns about the climate crisis have increased. Promoters of the approach, including gas producers and LNG exporters, argue that by installing an array of sensors that continuously monitor operations, gas producers can catch leaks and fix them. They can then sell a stream of gas that is “certified” to have all but eliminated methane emissions from their equipment.

One of the selling points for “certified gas” is that buyers — whether a gas utility in the U.S. or an overseas purchaser of American LNG — have better information and can choose to buy gas from responsible sources. As buyers shift to “certified gas,” it provides a strong market signal and incentive for producers to clean up their operations. This has become particularly salient after the Biden administration froze new permitting for LNG projects, in part because of concerns about the climate impacts.

This supposedly cleaner form of “certified gas” can even fetch a premium in some cases. At this point, roughly 40 percent of the U.S. gas supply is “certified,” and that share is expected to continue to rise.

The findings from the Earthworks/OCI field survey builds on a previous 2023 report from the same NGOs that came to similar conclusions. In many instances in which Earthworks personnel, wielding an OGI camera, could plainly see plumes of pollution through their lens, those events were going undetected. 

That is because the CEMs have technological limitations. The direction of the wind could blow pollution away from a sensor, resulting in it failing to pick up any data. Another more glaring problem was the fact that many monitors are installed on the outside of sound walls, putting a physical barrier between the pollution and the sensor. That problem was also found in this most recent survey.

“The sound walls are about 30 feet and create a significant barrier to these monitors being able to do any sort of effective job,” Raynes said. “It’s a very simple sensor and if the stream of pollution emissions does not travel directly over that sensor, it’s not going to detect it.”

Even in instances when methane leaks were reported to the state by gas producers, the companies said they identified the leak by using a leak detection and repair technology other than the third-party CEMs used for certification, raising further questions about their efficacy.

“All new advanced technology types have strengths and weaknesses,” Sunny Uberoi, communications lead for MiQ, one of the third-party certification firms, told Gas Outlook. “CEM systems allow for continuous data retrieval on emissions concentrations which can alert operations to potential events quickly plus keep temporally complete sets of data on performance. On the other hand, CEM systems are susceptible to poor deployment and require frequent field calibration for optimal performance.”

Monitors sold by one of the larger third-party certification firms, a company called Project Canary, were frequently offline, according to the Earthworks/OCI report. Data reported to the state would contain time gaps, and were offline “more than a quarter of the time on average.”

Project Canary issued a response after the 2023 report. And in response to questions from Gas Outlook, a spokesperson also criticised the latest edition.

“While we are still reviewing the report, we find that just like the one released in 2023, it is built on numerous inaccuracies and mischaracterisations. For example, none of the sites referenced in the report were ever certified by Project Canary,” a spokesperson for Project Canary told Gas Outlook in a statement. “Precise measurement and rigorous data reporting are at the heart of Project Canary’s mission, which is why we undergo regular, extensive blind release testing with leading academic institutions – the results of which are posted transparently on our website.”

Justification for gas expansion

The significance of the report’s findings goes beyond emissions from one particular site. The U.S. is the largest source of methane emissions from oil and gas operations in the world, surpassing Russia. Even in terms of methane intensity, the American oil and gas sector lags behind other countries, according to a separate OCI analysis. 

That stands in sharp contrast to the messaging connected to “certified gas” programmes, which has arguably succeeded in cleaning up the industry’s image as it continues to expand.

“Certified gas” is used by the industry to claim that gas is somehow clean, and as such, offers a solution to climate change.

Cheniere Energy has offered its version of certified gas, offering buyers of LNG around the world the comfort of thinking their gas is coming from lower emitting sources. EQT, the largest gas producer in the U.S., has aggressively promoted the increased export of U.S. LNG, and routinely points to gas certification schemes.

“Gas certification is being utilized to justify not only the expansion of infrastructure and new drilling projects in the U.S., but also the expansion of LNG infrastructure along the Gulf Coast to sell this purportedly ‘good gas’ to European customers, for instance, who are a little bit more climate conscious in some ways than customers in the U.S.,” Raynes said.

The Earthworks/OCI report makes clear that “gas certification doesn’t guarantee that emissions are actually being reduced,” Hannah Story Brown, a senior researcher at the Revolving Door Project, a Washington DC-based watchdog group, told Gas Outlook. “The danger of companies underreporting their emissions is that it’s not only concealing the problem, it’s redirecting energy away from the urgency of solving it.”

She said that LNG exporters have been very explicit in stating that certified gas helps them secure long-term contracts with buyers overseas. For instance, in response to an informational request from the U.S. Department of Energy, many gas producers and LNG exporters talked up the commercial potential of certified gas, particularly to climate-concerned European buyers.

“[D]ifferentiated natural gas programs can play a crucial role in helping the U.S. gain a competitive advantage in foreign natural gas markets” and “facilitate long-term contracting by purchasers of U.S. natural gas,” Williams Companies, a major U.S. pipeline operator, said in its filing to the Department of Energy.

But signing long-term contracts for LNG, and building brand new gas infrastructure, risks locking in pollution for decades go to come. Research shows that no new fossil fuel projects are needed in a scenario that limits warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Indeed, climate experts all say that fossil fuel infrastructure needs to be gradually phased out, not expanded.

“We should take them at their word, and view certification for what it is: another excuse to delay the energy transition,” Hannah Story Brown said.