Shale “methane leaks”: A UK distraction that needs to be closed down

Friendlys files for bankruptcy protection RREQ5Q9 x largeWhat if we left UK gas in the ground? Then what? Friends of the Earth say, often, and at some length, that pursuing new sources of gas – a fossil fuel – is not compatible with efforts to tackle climate change.  A chief objection is the methane controversy.  Methane is unburned natural gas which may, or may not, negate the climate benefits of lower C02 from the burning of natural gas instead of coal.

The science is far from settled on the methane from wells issue, especially in a UK context – we don’t have any. The US methane argument has used leakage rates of anywhere from 1.3 to over 10 % not only from wells, but from the distribution system, whereas in the UK, we have proof that the distrubtion component is far lower. If the leaks are low, then onshore UK natural gas remains not only good for the UK, but good for the planet. In the absence of any produced shale gas, the only proof that could be relevant is  what leaks from the UK pipe system. If one knows what to look for that’s easy to find out via National Grid, the pipeline operator. But probably only if you’re a gas geek. Most people, apart from sad cases like myself, simply switch on the heating or hot water and don’t consider how many people worry about gas so they don’t have to give it a second thought.

NTS Shrinkage is made up of three components:

1. Compressor Fuel Use (CFU), which is the total energy used by the compressors which help to maintain pressure and flow in the NTS. CFU is made up of fuel gas used for the gas turbine powered compressors (Own use Gas, or OUG) and energy used by the electric driven compressors;

2. Unbilled Energy, normally referred to as Calorific Value Shrinkage (CVS), which is the difference between delivered and billed energy of a charging zone as a consequence of applying the Flow Weighted Average Calorific Value (FWACV) process in accordance with the Gas (Calculation of Thermal Energy) Regulations 1996; and

3. NTS Unaccounted for Gas (NTS UAG), which is the gas which is lost or otherwise not accounted for as offtaken from the NTS. NTS UAG is considered to be the consequence of data and or meter error and is thus a relatively complex component of shrinkage, involving not only the mechanical behaviour of high pressure metering systems but statistical variations in their operation.

Us gas geeks know how much gas leaks because the UK pipeline system operates on a model where every almost any last kilowatt hour of gas is measured, because someone is paying somewhere along the (pipe)line for it. Gas goes into the NTS, National Transmission System at what is collectively called the beach, a bit outdated as the terminals now include LNG and Interconnector import terminals. It comes out at your central heating.  It’s also burning and flaring methane in dangerous places known as “kitchens”. Some unfortunates, like Gordon Ramsay or Jamie Oliver spend most of their working lives in such places.

Gas is measured for an important reason: it has a value. A producer or importer has paid good money to get it to the beach (upstream) and people pay money to use it (downstream). In between, National Grid (and the Local Distribution Zones), deliver it to users and are paid to transport it.  That’s called the midstream. So in a strange type of triple entry bookkeeping someone is constantly looking at the value chain. But there is another good reason for the attention to detail.

Gas pipeline systems have to operate to very strict standards to maintain system security. That is a rather mundane way of saying “If we don’t, things start blowing up”. Things rarely fail in the gas network and the system has multiple ways of making sure accidents don’t happen and that gas supplies aren’t interrupted. Almost everyone has had a power outage at some point every couple of years, but gas supply is remarkably resilient and disruptions exceedingly rare. Most people will go through an entire lifetime without one. While multiple factors are taken into account, all the will in the world can’t account for the IWB factor: Idiot with Backhoe. But the only reason the vast majority of people would see their gas supply interrupted is because they didn’t pay the bill (for months or years) and sooner or later someone shows up to shut it off.

Operational safety depends on complex measurement and algorithms created by unfortunate geeks who, thanks to the lack of a UK space program, are often literally wannabe rocket scientists. That is how complex day to day operations are. So we know what goes in and what goes out because almost every kilowatt hour is accounted for and belongs to somebody who is paying for it, up-, mid- and downstream. Compressors are fundamentally jet engines which push the gas through the system at a speed of about 40 kms an hour. (You can find out more here if you must.) Unlike electricity which is relatively instant, the gas coming out of a pilot light, apart from being formed up to 250 million years ago, came to the surface in Siberia up to a week ago or at the beach the night before.  Calorific value is so esoteric you do have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out. It basically derives from the fact that different gas fields contain different heat values and the volume of the gas depends on things like temperature, humidity and especially, atmospheric pressure or altitude.  And that’s the easy part. What remains is Unaccounted Gas. Which is basically leaks, although it’s often lost in billing systems or simply stolen.

All this is to point out that whatever figures are bruited about in Cornell New York, or Lancashire England about methane leaks, we have certified proof in the UK that leaks are almost invisible:

 Daily UAG data has been published on the National Grid website since October 2012. Weekly updates are made to this information and cover the period from 1 March 2007 up to 7 days previous. Due to the process of data close out (Day plus 5 and Month plus 15) the recent values are subject to change and is available via the following link:

National Grid regularly reports on our activity to investigate potential causes of UAG, the most recent report is available below. This report covers the latest UAG trends and provides updates of National Grid’s data analysis and meter validation activities.

April 2016

 shrinkage Uk

Click on the link and on page 4 there is all we need to know on what is called UAG, unaccounted for gas.  Or methane which has somehow leaked out of the system. It’s only 0.29 %. Far lower than the Howarth study in the US which proposed that the methane leaks of the distribution system are as high as 8%.

In a previous paper written in 2014, Howarth painted methane emissions from oil and gas production in dire terms, saying that ignoring fracking-related methane emissions would lead to a climate change tipping point and “global catastrophe” from which there is no return.

You can read, if you still have interest, this from Scientific American on the subject. But my basic point has always been that the UK shale industry has no incentive to leak methane. After all, the entire point is to sell it to people. Every lost molecule is 100% lost marginal profit. And in the distribution system, “lost” gas is a euphemism for “stolen”.

Sometime back in 1992, I had the dubious honour of being present, as representative of the now defunct London Total Gas, at the first “isolation” or cutting the cheapskate off, of an independent gas company customer. (Previously, then state owned British Gas was the monopoly supplier of all gas.) It was a London restaurant. Restaurants are notorious thieves of natural gas in that they either get approached by unscrupulous gas engineers who tamper with the meter, or just refuse to pay until they see if they last more than a few months. Restaurants are the most likely business to fail. It’s strange that Robert Howarth shouldn’t realise this because Cornell is after all home to:

The School of Hotel Administration (SHA) at Cornell University is a specialized business school[2] for hospitality management founded in 1922 as the first four-year intercollegiate school in the world devoted to the field.

And there is a famous Cornell Study:

Several years ago, researchers at Cornell University and Michigan State University conducted a study of restaurants in three local markets over a 10-year period. They concluded the following: After the first year 27% of restaurant startups failed; after three years, 50% of those restaurants were no longer in business; and after five years 60% had gone south.

This means that at best the methane leak issue is open to debate and at worst it’s a needless distraction – at least in the UK.


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