By Chris Romer
When it comes to climate change, carbon gets both the headlines and the investment. Because it’s key to such a dire problem, it’s the most-reported and most-measured metric. Despite all this publicity and published research, this is what we’ve learned from climate change: Solving the big problem of carbon is something people can’t wrap their heads around. It’s too big, too abstract, too intractable.
If we’re going to fight climate change effectively, we need to focus on things that can have an impact now and inspire businesses and individuals to recommit to the long-term fight. Incrementalism works, so long as folks keep the faith long enough for follow-through.
That’s why we need to start focusing more attention on methane — now. What methane offers us is a different perspective for the public. Carbon is the big ballgame, but when you’re down by 10 runs, you’re not going to win in a single at-bat. You need steady, sustained performance to win.
The research backs this up. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) writes that, in its first 20 years in the atmosphere, methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide. While CO2 may have a longer-lasting effect, methane sets the pace for warming in the near term.
If we can reduce our methane emissions now, the U.N. predicts that we can put a real down payment on climate change. It allows us to avoid close to 0.3 degrees Celsius of global warming by the 2040s, prevent 255,000 premature deaths and avoid 73 billion hours of lost labor from extreme heat globally. Reducing methane emissions is a business opportunity as much as it is a climate necessity.
As one of the major sources of methane emission (35% of human-caused emissions, according to the U.N.), the oil and gas industry can lead other industries in adopting smart methane emissions management strategies. It can serve as a model for how “going green” can do more than cut costs. With the right enabling technology, proper methane management can be an incredible revenue driver.
From Estimation To True Business Efficiency
Aside from the limelight lost to carbon, one of the reasons methane management has only recently gained traction is that, until a few years ago, detection has been all estimation.
In 2018, research from the EDF discovered that government estimates of methane were off by roughly 60%. Instead of the EPA-reported 8 million metric tons of methane a year, the EDF found that methane rates are as high as 13 million. Inaccurate reporting is why many players in the oil and gas industry have held off on comprehensive methane management or net-zero roadmaps. No one wants to move on unproven data — and for good reason. In the energy sector, making a decision based on bad data or faulty technology can result in rolling blackouts and even lost lives.
In the words of Peter Drucker, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” Fortunately, reliable and actionable methane monitoring technology has arrived. From my own company, Project Canary, to initiatives like EDF’s Project ASTRA, platforms are cropping up that allow oil and gas companies to detect and stop methane leaks faster and with greater precision than ever before. Once deployed, these technologies can empower companies to take action on net-zero roadmaps, recapture profits lost to energy leaks and even unlock a new, previously impossible category of energy — responsibly sourced gas (RSG) — which can be sold at a premium.
However, not all tools are created equal. Companies that are interested in reducing their methane emissions need to choose their partners wisely. Otherwise, they leave themselves open to greenwashing accusations.
Finding The Right Partner
With mounting pressures to decarbonize, plenty of emissions monitoring and certification startups have cropped up to fill this market gap. Some of these companies will inevitably fail in a few years — either unable to hold up to the scrutiny of environmental activists or unable to meaningfully counsel energy giants on how to do better. That’s why businesses need to carefully vet monitoring and certification technologies.
First is the question of data. When it comes to the technology itself, does the monitoring solution provide both granular and localized certification recommendations and standards? Oil and gas companies operating out of the Permian Basin face very different sustainability challenges than those based out of Alaska. Without localized certifications standards, businesses may be operating against benchmarks that don’t make any sense and that unfairly penalize (or reward) them.
The second is a cultural question. Businesses need to find monitoring and certification partners that are unafraid to challenge the way oil and gas operates today. Check-in-the-box partners will ultimately fail a company even if they provide a faster and easier short-term solution. As we saw with the recent ExxonMobil shareholder vote, change will come for companies eventually. It’s better to have the challengers on your side.
Beyond emissions monitoring technologies, businesses should also consider bringing environmental scientists on staff. Air and water treatment specialists can help take action on the emissions data that an emission monitoring partner provides as well as help build a culture of compliance that ensures company employees maintain good habits.
Our Path Forward
Methane is our next crucial step in the fight against climate change. The Biden administration understands this, and businesses are starting to follow suit. Alongside the host of carbon capture technologies, we’re already seeing companies adopt methane monitoring solutions to ensure we never have to reach the point of dire reversal we’re now facing with carbon.
It makes sense. When it comes to methane and responsibly sourced gas, the potential gains — both reputationally and monetarily — are just too large to ignore. The higher price point and consumer buy-in from RSG enable even more than a new energy commodity; they unlock a whole new financial market. With environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) investing on the rise, companies across industries can’t afford to turn a blind eye to methane. Not when both our planet and the markets are heating up day-by-day.