As the global community continues to grapple with the coronavirus (COVID-19), the Atlantic Council is open for business. Our business, meetings, and events, however, are occurring virtually. For more information, please read an update from our President and CEO.

On November 18, 2020, the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center hosted Thomas Kirk, manager for oil & gas solutions at the Rocky Mountain Institute, as part of EnergySource Innovation Stream, an online series that highlights new energy technologies with the potential to reshape the global energy system. Kirk delivered a presentation on how Climate Action Engine (CAE), an emissions data platform, enables operators, investors, regulators, and the public to take action towards reducing methane gas emissions. Randolph Bell, Richard Morningstar chair for global energy security and director of the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center, provided introductory remarks and moderated the discussion.

Kirk began the presentation with an overview of the CAE’s role in tracking methane, a greenhouse gas eighty-four times more powerful that carbon dioxide. The CAE brings together modeled, measured, and reported emissions data with the intent to build a public-facing and user-friendly platform to monitor and visualize emissions data from the oil and gas industry. Unlike other large methane-emitting industries such as agriculture and waste disposal, oil and gas production utilizes highly concentrated infrastructure, which allows for a more accurate identification of major methane-leaking sources. Kirk underlined that it is within reach for oil and gas producers to lower their methane intensity—the measure of methane emissions relative to natural gas production—to 0.05 percent, which would in turn reduce methane emissions by 1.5 million metric tons per year.

Kirk identified two key areas that the CAE will monitor in order to help producers lower the methane intensity of oil and gas output: where are emissions happening and which industry actors are the best performers. Accessible methane data could better inform the decision-making processes of a constellation of stakeholders, including producers seeking to improve short-term operations, financiers adjusting their portfolios to invest in low-methane-emitting assets, regulators comparing reported data with measured data from the CAE, concerned consumers, and the general public.

In addition to the emissions data platform, the CAE will also develop a low-methane certified gas standard. The CAE aims to leverage this standard to bridge the gap between voluntary company reporting and varied methane policy frameworks around the world. Kirk pointed out that heterogenous regulatory environments at a global level make it difficult for buyers to discern low-methane gas from other gases on the market. A low-methane certified gas standard would not only increase transparency, but help to reward producers with low methane intensity.

Kirk demonstrated the beta version of the CAE live during the event. In a first example, Kirk overlayed flaring data from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, flaring data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and data on all the known oil and gas wells in the Permian Basin in order to compare how company reporting measures up to detected methane emissions. In a second example, Kirk focused on reported methane intensity data from natural gas companies across the Permian Basin from 2018. According to Kirk, “the common narrative is that natural gas is a cleaner or less carbon-intensive fuel than coal, but if your methane intensity is around 2.5-3.0 percent, that puts you on par with coal. Any methane intensity higher than 2.8 percent is, from a global warming perspective, worse than coal.” In a final example, Kirk exhibited how the CAE can demonstrate both the impact of oil and gas companies on climate as well as the impact of climate on oil and gas companies. By applying flood risk layers to oil and gas assets, Kirk used the CAE to visualize the potential impact of flooding on oil and gas production over a thirty-year period. 

While the CAE currently draws upon reported numbers from the EPA, Kirk hopes that in time the CAE will incentivize companies to use more measured data from satellites, flyovers, drones, and hand-held and ground-based sensors. In his perspective, measured data not only improves data accuracy and granularity, but also helps to build trust in that data.

The audience Q&A session focused on the industry support and technology involved in launching the CAE platform. Kirk emphasized that the Rocky Mountain Institute is working hand-in-hand with oil and gas industry actors to develop the CAE. Even small companies—which have historically been reluctant to move towards methane reductions—have demonstrated interest in the CAE as a means to enable competition between companies seeking to drive down their methane emissions. While Kirk remains optimistic that President-elect Biden’s Administration will implement stronger regulations on methane emissions, he warned against relying on policy as the single lever of emissions control. The CAE seeks to encourage oil and gas companies to adopt low-emission standards and technology today, both in advance of and in the absence of stronger methane policies. Chathurika Gamage, manager of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Climate Aligned Program, joined the conversation to share her insights on the CAE’s low-emissions standard. Gamage explained that Engie’s recent refusal to move forward on a deal with a US liquified natural gas producer has increased industry interest in the CAE. Gamage shared that while the CAE will likely pitch the standard as voluntary company action, platform developers are currently in discussion with regulatory bodies in the hope that some parts of the low-methane emissions standard will be incorporated into an official federal regulation.

Emma Smith is a Fall 2021 intern at the Atlantic Council Global Energy.


Thomas Kirk, manager for oil & gas solutions, Rocky Mountain Institute

Thomas is a manager for oil & gas solutions, the Institute’s flagship program on carbon reduction in the extractives industry. His work includes management of the Climate Action Engine development and facilitation of workshops with operators and buyers on the methane standard for gas production.  Previously, Thomas worked on the Sunshine for Mines team advising mining industry clients on serving the electrical load of their operating sites and repurposing their closed sites into renewable energy facilities, as well as financial and technical modeling.

Before joining RMI, Thomas worked for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) coordinating and executing research and development projects in the areas of distributed energy resources and distribution engineering. Projects consisted of a mix of field trials and business case analysis reports.  

Learn more about the Global Energy Center

The Global Energy Center develops and promotes pragmatic and nonpartisan policy solutions designed to advance global energy security, enhance economic opportunity, and accelerate pathways to net-zero emissions.