It’s not just carbon emissions from our cars and homes that are warming the planet. In recent years, scientists have discovered plumes of methane, carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases escaping into the atmosphere from faulty gas pipelines and power plants. Otherwise known as fugitive emissions.
Fugitive emissions make up around 5 percent of global carbon emissions. But because they’re invisible to the naked eye, tracking and observing them is difficult without specialized equipment. As a result, they’re poorly regulated and not as scrutinized as greenhouse gases that come from other industries.
That comes as bad news for all of us. Fugitive emissions help speed up the rate of climate change. And if we do not tackle them adequately, we risk harming ourselves and the planet much faster.
In this article, we explore what fugitive emissions are and how we can control them.
What are fugitive emissions?
Fugitive emissions are usually described as accidental or unintentional greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities. Gas leaks from defective valves or abandoned mines are key examples of fugitive emissions.
They’re different from regular carbon emissions in that they escape the gas-to-energy cycle before they can be used. Whereas regular carbon emissions are produced after fossil fuels are burned, fugitive emissions get released into the atmosphere during storage or just before fuel processing.
Among the various greenhouse gases that make up fugitive emissions, methane is the most prominent, followed by carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 45 percent of all methane emissions can be traced to the oil and gas industry, which manages the extraction, storage, and transportation of fossil fuels.
The high concentration of methane is a true cause for worry. Studies have found that one tonne of methane may have the same effect on the climate as 28 tonnes of carbon dioxide on a 100-year timescale.
Methane concentrations in our atmosphere have doubled since the Industrial Revolution and may be responsible for 20 percent of the climate change we’ve so far experienced.
Carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide are less likely to escape as fugitive emissions but they can still do so. Both of these gases are present in most untreated hydrocarbon streams and may get accidentally released through loose valves or flare systems. They may also be produced from the oxidation of waste gas streams.
Where do they come from?
Recent data suggests that fugitive emissions mostly come from the oil and gas industry, with the remainder from the coal industry. They leak into the atmosphere mainly during the extraction, transport, storage, and processing of fossil fuels.
Most studies of fugitive emissions concentrate on methane, which is found in oil and gas deposits. When these deposits are mined through fracking – which involves drilling down into the well and pumping it full of water, sand, and chemicals to create fissures for the gas to escape – 2 to 6 percent of the gas can leak or vent into the atmosphere.
Methane can also leak from valves and connectors at fossil fuel processing sites, where they can number in the thousands. Improper maintenance and general wear can create openings between loose seals or gaskets under the valves and connectors that allow gases to escape undetected.
Studies by the EPA have found that 90 percent of fugitive emissions at oil and gas sites come from faulty valves and connectors.
But it’s not just fossil fuel facilities that release fugitive emissions, refrigeration systems, landfills, and wastewater can also contribute to fugitive emission concentrations in the atmosphere.
Loose or old components in refrigerators and air conditioners can discharge ozone-depleting refrigerations such as carbon dioxide and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) while decomposing organic waste in landfills and sewage produce methane.
Can companies test for fugitive emissions?
Although fugitive emissions are becoming an increasing problem, we already have the tools to track and trace them.
Companies can use technologies such as toxic vapor analyzers (TVAs) and optical gas imaging (OGI) equipment to help “sniff” the different types of gases being emitted into the atmosphere. These devices record the concentrations of the different gases and analyze the amount of loss that’s going on.
They’re often deployed to find gas leaks at common escape points, including processing plants, compressor stations, hydraulically-fractured wells, and along oil and gas pipelines.
Plant workers may, for example, carry a TVA to a suspected leak point to check for fugitive emissions. The TVA will provide readings of gas concentrations and identify the most potent gases being emitted.
Plant workers may also use OGI cameras to “see” hydrocarbon gases and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are venting or leaking into the atmosphere in real-time and from a safe distance.
Sensors in the cameras detect the gases and create a high-contrast imprint image that allows users to see where exactly the fugitive emissions are coming from and the direction they are flowing out to.
In coming years, these technologies may be further developed to be fitted onto airplanes, drones, and even satellites, which can survey entire oil facilities and extraction sites in less time with less need for manpower.
How companies reduce fugitive emissions
Companies reduce fugitive emissions by first identifying the locations and processes that are most likely to leak out fugitive emissions.
They use TVAs and OGI cameras to determine the locations of these potential leaks. The recordings of the gas concentrations are then uploaded to a leak detection and repair (LDAR) database.
When that’s done, companies employ a variety of strategies to deal with the specific types of fugitive emissions they’ve found at their site. Oil and gas companies may focus on preventing leaks from pipe networks by replacing valves and performing regular maintenance checks.
They may also carry out pre-mining degasification operations which extract methane from the air inside coal mines before large-scale drilling works begin. This helps companies capture methane that would’ve otherwise been lost and utilize it for fuel production.
Scientists estimate that these techniques can reduce over 65 percent of fugitive gas emissions from the oil and gas sector.
Companies dealing with fugitive emissions from landfills and sewage systems tend to deploy a more reactive approach.
Because waste is more abundant than natural gas and comes from thousands of different sources, companies may separate biodegradable waste from landfills and turn it into compost or biofuels.
They may also upgrade primary wastewater treatment facilities to separate methane and nitrous oxide and store it for other uses.
Companies with a bad history of fugitive gas emissions
Before methane leaks and carbon dioxide emissions became national news, several companies were extracting and processing fossil fuels with little regard to their environmental impact.
Among these companies, three stand out for their excessive fugitive gas emissions. Here’s a look at how Gazprom, Southern California Gas Company, and the Montney Bay oil and gas companies changed the way we view fugitive emissions.
Gazprom’s gas attracts international attention because it flows through the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany. The pipeline has caused grease spills on Germany’s Baltic coast and connects to the Yamal pipeline in Siberia, which was found to have released 17 tonnes of methane per hour in 2019.
Environmentalists claim that Russia, and Gazprom, do not report their methane emissions completely, meaning that the amount of fugitive emissions escaping may be higher than reported.
Southern California Gas Company
America’s worst fugitive emissions incident happened under the watch of the Southern California Gas Company when record-setting amounts of methane leaked out of the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility over four months between October 2015 and January 2016.
Around 800,000 families had to be evacuated after they experienced symptoms such as nausea and nosebleeds. Following the incident, investigators found that the plant managers did not fully investigate or repair more than 60 previous leaks. Groundwater had also corroded the metal lining of an underground gas well, which ruptured as a result at 892 feet below ground.
Oil and gas companies in the Montney Basin
An investigation by scientists from the David Suzuki Foundation discovered that around 35 percent of all inactive or abandoned wells in the Montney basin in British Columbia were leaking significant amounts of methane into the atmosphere.
The wells had been left behind by companies such as Encana, Pipestone Energy, and Seven Generations Energy.
Currently, active wells were also found to be emitting vast amounts of methane. More than 80,000 tonnes of methane had been deliberately vented out of the area without being captured, according to the investigators.
As much as 85 percent of all active gas wells were releasing methane into the environment.
Don’t do business with companies that benefit from fugitive emissions
Many companies today make tons of profit by neglecting fugitive emissions. Weak federal regulations and a constant demand for fossil fuels have allowed oil and gas companies and their banking partners to grow their gas extraction operations at breakneck speed.
We make sure that the money our customers save with us is free from fugitive emissions.
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