Electrifying oil and gas production: A cleaner way

July 25, 2022 | Neil Kolwey

When we burn gas to keep our homes warm and heat our hot water, or burn gasoline to power our cars, most of us don’t think about how these fuels are produced or the additional emissions involved in the “upstream” oil and gas production. But the upstream carbon pollutant emissions are significant, and there are ways to reduce and minimize them.

Colorado and New Mexico are two of the leading states in oil and gas production, and carbon emissions from oil and gas production accounts for more than 15% of these states’ total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

One of the largest sources of carbon emissions from oil and gas production is the large gas-fired engines used to drive gas compressors, which move the gas from processing sites to gas pipelines, and eventually to our homes and businesses. A cost-effective alternative to using large gas engines to drive compressors is to use electric motors. Electric compressor drives reduce maintenance costs and fuel/energy costs compared to gas engines. In addition, with the steadily increasing renewable energy resources being added to the grid, electric compressor drives significantly reduce carbon emissions — by 45% according to a recent study by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP).

As this article points out, one of the leading vendors/providers of gas compressors (to gas producers) has made a commitment to convert many “compressor packages” to electric motor drives over the next three-to-six months. This will help the vendor to showcase its status as a more sustainable company, while also helping its client gas producers to reduce their carbon emissions and maintenance and fuel costs involved with gas compression.

Another large source of carbon emissions from gas production is the leakage of methane from gas pneumatic pumps and controllers. These pneumatic devices rely on gas to drive their operations, in lieu of on-site electricity at gas production sites that are not connected to the grid. (Most gas production sites, consisting of a few or dozens of wells, are located in remote areas and are not connected to the electricity grid.) The pneumatic devices typically leak significant amounts of methane as a normal part of their operation, and methane is a significantly more potent GHG than carbon dioxide (by a factor of 28). Rather than continuing to rely on these leaky devices, some of the more responsible gas producers — driven by their carbon reduction goals and by new methane regulations — are beginning to shift many of their production sites to either: 1) connecting to the grid, or 2) generating electricity on-site, using gas engine generators. While even the latter choice results in a significant reduction in methane emissions, connecting production sites to the grid will help minimize their carbon emissions from electricity generation and consumption. Compared to an on-site gas generator, using grid electricity will reduce GHG emissions by about 35%, based on projected emission factors for Colorado’s grid over the next 10 years.

Given the ravaging impacts of climate change we are all experiencing, SWEEP encourages people to drive electric cars, ride bikes, and use public transportation, and to retrofit our homes to use electric heat pumps and heat pump water heaters. These steps will significantly reduce our personal and household carbon footprints. In addition, while oil and gas products continue to be produced and consumed by many people and businesses, we encourage oil and gas producers to electrify their production sites and gas compressor operations as much as possible to minimize the carbon emissions from production operations.