Tue, Apr 23 2024 23 April, 2024

U.S. videos show methane pollution from LNG

Using an optical gas imaging camera, which detects pollutants that are otherwise invisible, Earthworks found extensive emissions including methane pollution from U.S. LNG export terminals in Louisiana.

LNG buildout is continuing on the Louisiana coastline of the U.S. (Photo credit: John Allaire)

Cameras have revealed that there are substantial emissions including methane pollution from LNG export terminals on the Gulf Coast with little response from state regulators, undercutting the industry’s argument that LNG can play a constructive role in the energy transition.

Emissions including methane pollution from LNG export terminals in southwest Louisiana are significant, seemingly routine, and happening at multiple sites, according to video evidence captured by environmental NGO Earthworks.

“I saw a huge abundance of emissions, likely methane, coming from LNG facilities in Louisiana,” Tim Doty, president of TCHD Consulting, who was hired by Earthworks to conduct the surveys, told Gas Outlook.

In June 2022, Doty shot nearly two dozen videos with an optical gas imaging (OGI) camera, which captures an array of hydrocarbon pollutants that are not visible to the naked eye. The OGI camera is used by both regulators and the oil and gas industry itself, and is considered a standard scientific instrument for documenting emissions leaks from oil and gas facilities and equipment.

Having spent 28 years as a regulator at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Doty is a certified thermographer and expert in the use of OGI cameras. He has “looked at many hundreds of industrial facilities in Texas and around the world,” as he describes it, using OGI cameras. Now retired, he runs a consultancy, and Earthworks hired him to conduct OGI surveys of multiple LNG and chemical facilities along the Texas and Louisiana coast over the course of several days in June 2022.

What he saw through the lens of the camera at LNG sites in Louisiana was alarming, with 21 videos at a half dozen facilities that “stood out from the rest,” he said.

Among them are Venture Global’s Calcasieu Pass LNG site in coastal southwest Louisiana. As Gas Outlook previously reported, Calcasieu Pass is exhibiting persistent operational problems, with near-constant flaring since it began operations in early 2022, despite assertions that flaring would be only done under extraordinary circumstances. In recent regulatory filings with the federal government, Venture Global has admitted that its site is suffering from multiple equipment failures.

But the infrared camera found further evidence of “detectable hydrocarbon emissions that were not visible to the bare eye” at Calcasieu Pass, Doty wrote in a document submitted to Louisiana state regulators.

About 30 miles north, along the Calcasieu River, is Cameron LNG, another gas export project spearheaded by Sempra Energy. In videos shot at this facility, Doty noted “expansive emissions from multiple hot exhaust stacks” that were “continuously released.” They also “filled the horizon above and well beyond the property boundaries,” he wrote, adding that “company emissions were significant and appear to be understated on permit representations.”

And further west of those two gas export facilities is Cheniere Energy’s Sabine Pass LNG site, the largest gas export terminal in the country. Again, Doty documented “excessive emissions…from many hot exhaust stacks, along with some uncombusted/partially combusted emissions” from one particular flare. He said that Cheniere Energy’s Sabine Pass site was “actively releasing excessive hydrocarbon emissions on both June 20 and 23,” the two separate times he visited the site.

“I’m not looking at heat. It’s not steam,” he said emphatically, dispelling an oft-repeated misunderstanding about OGI cameras. “We were looking at hydrocarbon. The question is, is the hydrocarbon actually permitted or not?”

The OGI camera does not “speciate” the pollutants — separate out the chemical makeup of the emissions — and the videos did not measure volume. For that, there should be a more extensive investigation by state regulators, he said.

He submitted his findings to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) in August 2022 so that they could follow up.

But months went by and Doty heard nothing. The online platform run by LDEQ that displays complaints, permits, and other notable developments at specific industrial facilities, had not posted his submissions for more than seven months. Only in late March 2023, after repeatedly following up, did LDEQ finally post his complaint and correspondence it conducted with the companies in question.

Following up on Doty’s complaints, LDEQ personnel had reached out to Cheniere Energy, Venture Global, and Cameron LNG, along with other chemical companies that he had surveyed.

In response, Cheniere Energy said the facility had some problems with valves on the day the video was recorded, resulting in small amounts of NOx, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds emitted into the air. Cheniere also said that it had some problems with two of its liquefaction trains, which may have resulted in additional emissions events, but the company did not specify or quantify.

Venture Global responded and said its gas turbines were “operating normally and within permitted limits.” Cameron LNG also said nothing was “abnormal” that may have led to excessive flaring.

However, none of the companies mentioned methane, which does not require a permit.

Gas Outlook sent a series of questions to the three companies.

In a statement to Gas Outlook, Anya McInnis, a spokesperson for Cameron LNG said: “Cameron LNG operates our facility in compliance with our permits. Cameron LNG conducts measurement and emission calculations in accordance with EPA/LDEQ regulations as well as permit requirements, and emissions are reported as required by regulation.”

Venture Global and Cheniere Energy did not respond.

Gas Outlook reached out to the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, a Washington DC-based trade association representing the LNG industry, hoping to get further industry perspective on how routine it is for LNG facilities to be emitting methane and other pollutants from flares and other equipment, as seen in the videos. They too did not respond.

But the OGI evidence demonstrates why it is so important that state regulators monitor LNG and chemical facilities closely, Doty said. “I gave 21 different videos to the LDEQ, filed in 9 different air complaints for various companies, expecting the LDEQ to investigate them, use the technology, go coordinate with the company, and figure out what the heck was going on,” he said.

In a March 28 letter to Doty, LDEQ said it is investigating the matter, but that its inquiry is not complete.

LDEQ did not respond to questions from Gas Outlook.

Methane pollution from LNG, drilling, appliances 

LNG developers and their trade associations frame LNG as a climate-friendly fuel, offering lower emissions than coal.

But methane is a super potent greenhouse gas, and it leaks from all parts of the gas supply chain. Methane is emitted from drilling sites, gathering lines, compressor stations, long-distance transmission lines, local distribution lines, and even from appliances in buildings. And, as Earthworks research indicates, methane is also emitted at LNG facilities. Evidence suggests gas is just as bad or possibly worse for the climate than coal.

Crucially, much of it remains underreported and uncounted. Doty noted that flares that burn hydrocarbons are supposed to work at 98 percent efficiency, preventing methane and other harmful pollutants from escaping into the atmosphere and super-charging the climate crisis. But his videos indicate that many flares at multiple LNG sites are not working as promised.

A peer-reviewed study published last year estimated that flares in many U.S. oil and gas fields operate at just 91 percent efficiency. Flares can fail to completely combust the gas, or worse, operators at times leave the flares unlit, resulting in methane vented into the atmosphere.

At just 91 percent efficiency, methane emissions from flares could be as much as five times higher than official estimates suggest, according to the study.

Doty saw that on display in Louisiana. “I looked at several different flares that did not seem to be combusting properly. I can’t tell you if it was 90 percent or 80 percent,” he said. “What I can tell you is that there were flares that were unusual in the quantity of emissions that they were putting out.”

Gas Outlook asked other experts to look at the video evidence, which depict pollutants escaping from exhaust stacks. They show evidence that “combustion may not be efficient,” said Gunnar Schade, an associate professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University. He added that the videos show several “hot spots” at the LNG sites, evidence of open flares or hot flue gases emanating from the short stacks. It’s also possible that some equipment may have leaky seals, causing gas to escape before internal combustion, Schade added, but that it was difficult to tell at a distance.

Ultimately, he said that it’s “virtually impossible” to operate such facilities without any methane leakage.

“We need studies that fly downwind of these facilities regularly to determine integrated methane emissions, like was done with offshore facilities,” he said.

Other experts concur. The methane releases “undercut LNG as a clean fuel,” Jacqueline Weaver, a Professor Emerita at the University of Houston Law Center, told Gas Outlook, after looking at the OGI evidence. While cautioning that she can’t assess the volume of methane released, she said that, in general, methane pollution from LNG, oil and gas operations remain “vastly underreported.”

“Thank goodness we have [the Environmental Defense Fund] and other nonprofits and academics who have launched their own flyovers, drones, and satellites to detect the reality of methane releases,” Weaver said, referring to an array of non-governmental efforts to measure methane.