Do environmentalists dream of electric cows?

The EDF are crowdfunding the launch of a satellite to monitor methane emissions by oil companies; which makes a bit more sense when you realise that “EDF” in this case is the Environmental Defence Fund, not the French electricity company.

Yet another part of the slightly illogical crusade against oil producers which is very much in vogue? The current focus on producers is a bit like Narcos focusing on Pablo Escobar and ignoring all the dealers and users….(which is of course roughly what happened!).  An approach that does nothing to address retail-distribution or demand. Not that I should equate Big Oil to Colombian drug lords in anything other than a tongue-in-cheek analogy, in case someone takes me seriously.

Big Oil, under pressure from all sides has bitten the bullet and joined the band-wagon of “sustainable” businesses. Quite how you structure a business that specifically exploits declining and finite resources as being “sustainable” is a bit beyond me.  One way that is fashionable is the focus on the reduction in the carbon footprint in the exploration and production of oil and gas. Things like wind-turbines powering offshore installations and such like. Makes for great photos in corporate brochures and lists of “innovation”. Total is just one example – “Akpo: Worlds First all-electric FPSO” (see figure above)

what ??… and that electricity comes from where exactly ? Oh yes, dual-fuel gas and diesel gensets, but I digress…

As per my above analogy – this is a bit like Pablo Escobar locking his medicine cabinet in case some coke-head wants his cough syrup. Still, reducing the carbon-footprint in E+P is seen as being a “core value” – and even more bizarrely seems to actually deflect some of the criticism.  I don’t know the real number (please do let me know in the comments below) but I’d guess that the carbon footprint of an oil company would be 90%++ due to consumption of the products and only a tiny fraction due to the E+P part. But due to pressure, Oil companies must be seen to be reducing their “footprint”.

But back to Methane and the EDF.

The logic of the EDF satellite is quite sensible – Methane is reported to be anywhere from 10x to 100x more “potent” a Greenhouse Gas (“GHG”) than Co2 – so it’s actually refreshing to see some of the efforts being pointed in its direction.  We might eventually get around to talking about water vapour as a GHG also, but lets not go there.

According to BP :

The global warming potential of methane is at least 84 times greater than CO2 over a 20-year period. As it breaks down more rapidly in the atmosphere than CO2, that potential decreases to around 25 times greater when calculated over a 100-year period – the timeframe most governments and companies use to assess its impact.

Methane Intensity is the jargon used in the industry, but really seems to refer to leakage of methane. Methane is the natural gas in “oil and gas” and it leaks in small amounts during production operations “This includes the methane emissions from our operations where gas goes to market as a percentage of that gas – accounting for more than 90% of methane emissions from our operated oil and gas assets. We don’t include methane emissions that result from gas that is only reinjected, recycled or associated with assets where BP doesn’t produce the gas.” Which I think says that we only measure Methane Intensity in those operations in which we sell the gas (albeit that this covers 90% of all emissions).

Gas displaces Coal

The drive to replace “dirty coal” with “green(er) gas” has been largely successful, although the world is still far from weaned off of coal. Key to this change is the fact that coal was mostly used in power-stations, having been phased out as a domestic fuel in most countries, and gas is an easy substitute for coal in power generation. This substitution has been accelerated by the huge technological advances in LNG which now allow gas to be transported globally.  Whilst gas is generally quoted as having half the GHG emissions as coal (a surprisingly small ratio) there is also a tangible and visible bonus of reduced particulate matter pollution.

However, the move from coal means an absolute rise in gas production – and it is becoming a much bigger chunk of global primary fuel. This will mean more methane leakage – with the methane being circa. 25x more potent… so the logic for a monitoring satellite make a lot of sense if you believe gas producers won’t self-police.

Clearly to anyone who has worked on a rig or a production site, leaking methane is generally considered a “bad idea” from a survival of the individual point of view. Methane is of course highly volatile.

BP has set itself a target of 0.2% Methane Intensity – which is 10x lower that the usual 2% figure. Stephen Pacala of Princetown has estimated that if every gas company were to meet the 0.2% criteria, it would be the same as removing 1/6th of all CO2 “intensity” effects cumulative since 1900… so it clearly is a big one.

Obviously, oil and gas operations are not the only source of methane. Methane is also produced naturally by organic process and somewhat less naturally (albeit still organically) by farming.

Farming and Methane

By some estimates, half of GHG methane is related to fossil fuels and half due to farming/livestock. The monumental scale of the rise of farming related biomass has been highlighted by many commentators but is beginning to trickle into the consciousness. Fast Food Nation tangentially covered this in 2001 and just last week the Guardian published a widely shared article covering species extinction and this week on the rise of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (Factory Farming) in the UK

Estimates from my usual source (Nate Hagens) shows that for terrestrial mammals in pre-industrial society,

  • Humans = 0.2 MT,
  • Domesticated Mammals = 0 MT and
  • Wild Mammals = 300 MT. 

Currently not only have the proportions swung massively, but the absolute biomass has increased hugely, and it is ALL farming (ie human consumption) related.

  • Humans = 423 MT,
  • Domesticated Mammals = 1403 MT and
  • Wild Mammals 23 MT. 

Meaning that the Terrestrial Mammal biomass represented by Wild Mammals has gone from 99.9% to only 1.3%….

And as we all know, all these domestic animals (pigs, sheep and cows – and of course non-mammals such as chickens) consume carbon-based foods and produce meat, with methane as one of the by-products. As noted in the image on the right, production of methane by cows is equivalent to a car’s CO2. It is worth noting that there are 1.3-1.5 billion cows, and a similar number of cars currently (c. 1Bn) – quid the first electric cow?

In a 2006 United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization report, it claims that the livestock sector, most of which are cows, “generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport.”

The mechanization of farming is well known. The development of super-crops is also well documented – from the cross-breeding programs of the 1960s and 70s “green revolution” to the more worrying genetically modified products used and feared today. In addition to these two developments, farming has also benefitted from the use of gas in making fertilizers. The Haber-Bosch process converts natural gas into Nitrogen fertilizers and is a relatively overlooked, but super important part of the whole energy-food-lifestyle equation that everyone takes too much for granted today.

In fact these three elements (mechanization, genetics and fertilizers (as well as herbicides and pesticides)) have made a lot of Malthusian predictions about over population wrong. Including this one from the original Earth Day in 1970.

“Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born,” wrote Paul Ehrlich in a 1969 essay titled “Eco-Catastrophe! “By…[1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s.” (source)

Indeed, in my other posts where I have written about Peak Cheap Oil and the end of the world, I need to remind myself that every era thinks the world is going to end… and so far has always been proven wrong 😊

Meat is murder… (…ing the planet)

As with everything, there is a price: in the case of industrial farming it is not just the huge loss of biodiversity but also the externalities such as excessive use of chemicals as pest control and as fertilizer.

This image below shows the Gulf of Mexico, very familiar to those of us in the Oil industry – the coloured area is the “dead zone” – and no its not Macondo – the Macondo spill you’d be hard pressed to see on this scale of map.  This is consequence of nitrate run-off from farming and human activity killing everything. 

“Dead zones,” also called hypoxia areas, are caused by nutrient runoff from agricultural and other human activities in the watershed and are highly affected by river discharge and nitrogen loads. These nutrients stimulate an overgrowth of algae that sinks, decomposes, and consumes the oxygen needed to support life in the Gulf. Dead zones are a major water quality issue with an estimated total of more than 550 occurring annually worldwide. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone is the second largest human-caused hypoxic area in the world. (source)

Lifestyles

To be a logically coherent anyone concerned enough about Climate Change to protest or attend conferences on it, should in all honesty be vegan/vegetarian also (and I am not throwing stones here, as I suspect many may well be…). Notwithstanding the unsustainable change in the biomass and the negative consequences of industrial farming; the Green House Gas emissions resulting from humans being carnivores is, as far as methane is concerned, equal to Oil and Gas as an energy resource (and methane represents about 30% of Co2-equivalent Global Warming)

My guess is that the EDF satellite will find a lot of hot-spots that have nothing to do with the oil and gas industry.  However that won’t sit well with the stated agenda and so the factory-farming hot-spots will not get the same attention as the oil and gas ones.  But lets wait and see, maybe I’m wrong.  

Last year Dr Nisbet’s team used isotopic analysis and weather models to trace a cloud of methane over the North Sea not to one of its many oil rigs but to cows in the county of Lincolnshire.

I wonder if working in the oil industry but being a vegan (not that I am at the moment) is less bad for the environment than being a meat-eating, protesting concerned-citizen… hmm… food for thought so to speak. 

Whilst a bit frivolous, it is also clear that radical changes in eating habits could have a very rapid impact on energy use, biodiversity and climate – probably a more tangible and easy to achieve result than the “Energy Transition” which has more fundamental challenges around thermodynamics and economics.

Off for a salad now.