When PG&E Corp.’s San Bruno Pipeline exploded in 2010, it triggered Nooshin Behroyan’s entrepreneurial spirit — to measure and limit methane releases, avoiding accidents and minimizing greenhouse gases. After working as a consultant for the San Francisco-based utility, the Iranian immigrant started her company Paxon Energy and Infrastructure in 2016, shattering the old-boys oil and gas network.
Cutting methane emissions is central to the battle against global warming. It’s also in the interest of utilities and oil and gas producers to recapture escaping methane or reduce the flaring of natural gas. Indeed, runaway methane will diminish the value of natural gas in electricity markets while recapturing it and putting it back into pipelines classifies it as a renewable fuel.
Major oil and gas producers are already investing in mitigation efforts, and many support the movement to regulate methane releases. Moreover, companies like Shell, Equinor, BP, Total, Statoil, EQT
“We recover 95% to 99% of the natural gas that would otherwise get burned off or released into the atmosphere,” says Behroyan, chief executive of Paxon in the San Francisco area, in an interview. “Natural gas companies and utilities must identify, maintain, and upgrade their pipelines. Denizens fill cities. Imagine you are in a neighborhood, and they are blowing noxious gas and burning it.”
Instead of flaring or releasing the natural gas, the company removes it from the pipeline during maintenance and inspections. Paxon says it recaptures about 20 million square cubic feet of methane annually, which natural gas utilities can sell as energy. Because it is captured and re-used, regulators consider it “renewable.” The technology also aligns with President Biden’s goal of reducing methane emissions by 30% by 2030.
According to the International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook, companies flare or release about 75 million metric tons of methane each year. It adds that those producers or utilities could prevent at least half of those releases with today’s technologies — tools that improve with time. Fossil fuels contribute 35% of all global methane releases.
‘Renewing Energy That Would Otherwise Get Wasted’
Southern Company uses Paxon’s technology, saying it is “hyper-focused” on safety, community relations, and making investments that improve quality of life. Its goal is to provide sustainable services at affordable prices while engaging various stakeholders. Doing business with female-owned or veteran-run firms is also important, with 38% of all outside contracts coming from those companies.
Methane recapture is spotty among utilities, it says. “It is new and emerging, and companies are considering it,” says Nikita Trivedi, director of sustainability for Southern Company’s Southern Gas Company, in an interview. “It’s part of our sustainability strategy; over time, it will get more cost-effective. We have a net-zero strategy by 2050, so this is a perfect partnership.”
Indeed, CEO Behroyan — a 38-year-old single mother of two children who came to the United States at age 18 — is determined to reduce methane emissions. She’s doing so by ensuring the energy infrastructure built 150 years ago can handle the load during the current clean energy transition. After earning a master’s degree from the University of California at Davis, she worked at PG&E before starting Paxon, which Inc. 5000 named as the ninth fastest growing private company in America. The firm also works with CenterPoint Energy
Recapturing methane is considered a “best practice” — not yet required of utilities. But 192 countries are parties to the Paris climate agreement, which seeks to limit temperature increases to stunt global warming. For oil and gas companies, recaptured methane is sold to manufacturers to produce such things as plastics.
Utilities find it a well-ordered process, allowing them to use all of the natural gas in their pipelines to create fuel for homes or cars. Most utilities want to recapture natural gas and methane, although nearly all those endeavors are in the experimental or research and development stages. Competing technologies exist.
“We are thinking about the environment and engineering solutions within a company’s constraints,” says Behroyan. “We are renewing energy that would otherwise get wasted. Poorly managed pipelines get bad results — like a San Bruno in San Francisco. The return on investment comes from the ‘triple bottom line’” — the social, economic, and environmental benefits.
Natural gas is a hot commodity that could go cold. Enter Nooshin Behroyan and companies like Paxon, driven to reduce methane emissions and increase pipeline safety. Their technology saves energy and serves local communities, making it a primary lever in the battle against climate change.