Methane from natural gas boosts annual global warming gases by 8% – study

As Israel swaps coal for natural gas, pollution will drop but gas leaks from wells to power stations, currently not measured, ‘likely to stop Israel meeting climate change targets’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

A worker walking on the Leviathan natural gas platform, offshore of Israel. (Albatross)
A worker walking on the Leviathan natural gas platform, offshore of Israel. (Albatross)

Methane emanating from Israel’s natural gas infrastructure is increasing the country’s overall global-warming greenhouse gas emissions by some eight percent and is probably preventing the country from meeting its international obligations on climate change, according to a new report by the environmental advocacy organization Adam Teva V’Din.

The finding contradicts claims by Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz that the move to natural gas is helping Israel reach its targets for lowering warming gases.

The global warming potential over 20 years of methane — the main element in natural gas — is 84 times that of carbon dioxide, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In other words, a single molecule of methane absorbs 84 times as much solar energy as a molecule of carbon dioxide, and so contributes to global warming 84 times more.

Arie Vanger, responsible for air-related issues at the environmental non-profit organization Adam, Teva V’Din. (Courtesy)

In the report, focusing on global warming as opposed to air pollution, Arie Vanger, responsible for air-related issues at the organization, tried to estimate how much methane is released along the entire chain of production and distribution of Israel’s Tamar and Leviathan gas wells, up to its arrival at gas-fired power stations.

“The methane emissions from the gas reservoirs occur throughout the production chain,” he wrote, “from the production wells through the transmission pipelines to the processing rigs, through the pipelines that transport the gas from the rigs to the national onshore grid and distribution system, through pressure-reducing stations to the end consumers in industry or in the energy sector.”

To date, the only information that Israel collects on natural gas-related methane emissions is what the Tamar and now-closed Mari-B rigs reported to the Environmental Protection Ministry. For the whole of 2017, for example, the Tamar rig reported methane emissions of just 3,950 tons.The figures are published annually in an industrial emissions register.

Workers seen on the Tamar natural gas processing platform, 23 km (14 miles) off the southern coast of Ashkelon, October 11, 2013. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Reports have not yet been released on methane discharge at the Leviathan gas platform, which has been plagued by operational problems since it began commercial production in late December. The Energy Ministry is bringing in external engineering consultants to examine why the flare has been used on so many occasions over recent months to burn off gas because of system failures.

Israel’s third national communication on climate change, submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2018, reported emissions from 2015 of 66.9 million tons of carbon dioxide but only around 7,000 tons of methane (measured in CO2 equivalent) and that small figure was made up mostly of methane emissions from waste dumps, not the natural gas industry.

Because the Environmental Protection Ministry does not measure natural gas emissions in such a thorough way, along hundreds of kilometers of infrastructure, some of it outside of Israel’s territorial waters, Vanger used figures from installations overseas and details about equipment made available in the professional literature.

Assuming, on the basis of an earlier study that he co-authored, that the Tamar and Leviathan systems are emitting 2.26% of the total amount of gas in their wells, he calculated annual total methane emissions for the two at 372,672.2 tons, which is way above the state’s report to the UN of 7,000 tons and equivalent to 31.3 million tons of carbon dioxide.

“These are enormous emissions on a national scale that are neither measured nor reported,” Vanger wrote.

Coal-fired sections of the Orot Rabin Power Station in Hadera are gradually being decommissioned as Israel moves to natural gas Here the power station is pictured from the ruins in Caesarea, on July 24, 2015. (Garrett Mills/Flash 90)

He calculated that over the next few years, as Israel moves from coal and oil to natural gas, total greenhouse gas emissions will actually increase by an annual net average of 6.4 million tons, equivalent to 8% per year.

In other words, while the ongoing closure of coal- and oil-fired power plants will improve air quality by reducing polluting gases such as carbon dioxide, and while the move to natural gas will — according to Vanger — bring the country energy security as well as eventual financial gains via taxes and payments to a sovereign wealth fund, the transition to natural gas as a key source of the country’s energy will increase Israel’s contribution to climate change and this will only grow as more wells are developed and more gas-fired power stations are built.

Calling on the Environmental Protection Ministry to map greenhouse gas emissions across all components of the gas system, add them to the national emissions calculations and create a minimization plan, Vanger concluded, “The national [global warming] reduction targets are modest targets and the inclusion of methane emissions in the national calculus will probably see Israel fail to meet the modest targets it has set for itself.”

The move to natural gas, a fossil fuel, has become increasingly controversial in Israel, as well as overseas. In November, more than 100 leading Israeli scientists signed a letter calling on Steinitz to reverse his ministry’s decision to build a new network of power plants that run on natural gas and instead to put greater emphasis on moving to renewable energy.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz at a conference in Tel Aviv on February 27, 2019. (Flash90)

At the beginning of this month, the energy minister announced that the target for renewable energy by 2030 was officially being raised from 17%  to 30%, in a plan set to cost some NIS 80 billion ($22 billion) over the coming decade.

But among an inter-ministerial team’s recommendations published in December 2018 and approved by the government the following January are ensuring a natural gas supply to the Israeli market of 500 billion cubic meters a year until 2042 and taking “additional measures to incentivize petroleum exploration and production activity offshore.”

Said Vanger, “The existing gas reservoirs give Israel the amount of gas it needs and the energy security it needs up to 30 years to come. This is a window of opportunity to move to a low-carbon energy economy based on renewable energy and energy efficiency. The window of opportunity will close as more gas-powered power plants are set up to operate for decades.”

The Energy Ministry said in a statement that while emissions are the Environmental Protection Ministry’s responsibility, it had carried out a thorough study of methane in March that concluded that the transition from coal to natural gas would halve emissions from electricity generation and cut them by a third in heat production.

Based on global coefficients and averages, Vanger’s figures were “not necessarily” true for Israel, the statement added, stressing that the infrastructure to and from the Tamar and Leviathan rigs was equipped with technology to identify leaks and reduce methane releases, such as the flares located on the platforms.

The Environmental Protection Ministry said that the use of natural gas was a necessary step in closing the polluting coal units at the Orot Rabin power plant and reducing the use of polluting fuels in general, but that it represented a transition stage to an economy based on renewable energy. It also criticized Vanger’s coefficients for being too general, and stressed that “As part of the emissions permit, the Environmental Protection Ministry requires the permit recipient to submit a greenhouse gas emissions assessment plan in order to assess the amount of emissions from the gas and how they can be reduced.” Greenhouse gas emissions were likely to decline significantly over time because of the move to renewables, it added.

Vanger said that if the ministry criticized his use of global coefficients, it should measure the local natural gas infrastructure to arrive at Israeli ones.

“It doesn’t change the main argument in the report, namely that transitioning to gas mainly reduces air pollution, but does not significantly reduce, and probably even increases, greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “Any development of [additional] gas reservoirs or the construction of additional gas-fired power plants will only add emissions.”

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