By Clifford Krauss
DAMASCUS, Ark. — In the energy business, natural gas is supposed to be one of the good guys — the cleaner-burning fossil fuel that can help wean the world from dirty coal during the transition to a low-carbon future.
But when natural gas escapes unburned, as it often does during production and distribution, it is a big troublemaker. Its essential component, methane, is particularly pernicious — a greenhouse gas that is more than 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide over 20 years as it dissipates.
That is why, on a recent sweltering day, a team of Southwestern Energy technicians went hunting for leaky pipes and wells on the rolling cow pastures of northern Arkansas. They rode in pickup trucks, outfitted with infrared cameras and laser-beam scanners.
Wearing hot, fire-retardant suits, they pulled up to a compressor station called Yogi 1, and, enduring the station’s deafening noise, spent 90 minutes with their high-tech detection gear looking for leaks. Finally finding one, on a gas line connector, they made a quick repair.
Then one team member performed a decidedly low-tech test, pouring a bottle of soapy water over the patch. Although popping bubbles indicated methane was still seeping, one more turn of the wrench made the bubbles disappear.
“In the war against methane emissions,” Eric Davis, a member of the Southwestern team said, smiling, “we won this battle.”
But the war is far from won, and the reputation of natural gas — not to mention a big part of the global effort against climate change — may hang in the balance.
Methane has many sources, including flatulent cows and decomposing landfills. But the oil and gas industry may be the nation’s biggest emitter of leaked methane, gas that might otherwise stay underground for eons.
While coal still predominates in many parts of the world, especially in emerging economies, natural gas has already replaced coal as the United States’ leading fuel for power plants. But the American energy industry lets enough natural gas escape each year to meet the heating and cooking needs of about seven million homes annually.
That runaway gas also creates about the same short-term climate impact as 240 coal-fired power plants, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.
So federal regulators have begun cracking down, especially since the climate conference in Paris last December, when the United States and most other nations committed to controlling global warming.