Navajos reach deal to turn vented methane in southern Utah into hydrogen

(Photo courtesy of Utah Governor's Office of Energy Development) Bill McCabe, a technology officer with Navajo Nation Oil and Gas, on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, at the Utah Capitol announces a partnership with alternative-energy companies to capture vented methane from its Utah oil field operations and convert it to hydrogen.

Thousands of cubic feet of natural gas are vented every day from the Navajo Nation’s remote oil-producing operations in southeastern Utah, adding a powerful greenhouse gas to the atmosphere that could otherwise be put to beneficial use.

The tribe’s oil and gas company now says it has found a solution where the vented methane would be captured, converted to hydrogen and delivered to market for use in fuel-cell vehicles and other equipment that uses the universe’s lightest known element.

In a deal announced Monday at the Utah Capitol, Navajo Nation Oil and Gas will contract with an upstart Missouri-based alternative-energy company called H2GO and a tribally affiliated renewable energy firm known as Big Navajo Energy.

“We have been looking at various ways to provide a home for this stranded gas. To date, we’ve been venting, which we’re permitted to do. We would rather not. It’s a resource that we consider just going up in smoke. We’d rather see the benefit to the people,” said Bill McCabe, technology officer for Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Co. “Now we’re able to capture this, convert it into a different fuel, a fuel of the future, at a much higher economic value than the commodity of natural gas itself.”

Monday’s announcement was coordinated by the Governor’s Office of Energy Development, whose director hailed the project as a “monumental” step toward a clean energy future and greater tribal sovereignty.

“We have a partnership and organization to deliver the mutual benefit of advancing new commodity production while managing emissions that have been associated with oil and gas production,” said Laura Nelson, who heads the office and serves as Gov. Gary Herbert’s energy adviser.

H2GO Chief Executive Johnpaul Quick would not fully explain how his process works — saying those details are proprietary — except to note it requires a great deal of heat, with temperatures around 900 degrees. H2GO would burn some of the gas on-site for use in its process to extract the hydrogen.

"This technology is proven," Quick said. "It will work."

“Methane cracking” is an old technology in which a methane molecule is broken apart into its constituent elements of hydrogen and carbon, but its heat requirements, poor conversion rates and other shortcomings have made it difficult to put the process into widespread use.

Hydrogen retails for $13 to $16 a liter at 42 fueling stations in California, and prices are expected to drop as the technology for producing hydrogen improves, according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership. A kilogram of hydrogen, about one liter, packs about the same energy content as a gallon of gasoline.

The Navajo Nation’s Tohonadla oil field south of Bluff is too far from existing pipelines to justify gathering the gas that emerges from these wells as a byproduct. So officials release about 80,000 cubic feet a day, an amount that is under the 100,000 cubic feet the tribe is authorized to vent or flare from its field, according to McCabe.

The gas vented over the course of a year is worth about $73,000, depending on the price of natural gas, which can vary widely. McCabe said the tribe’s vented gas can yield 600 kilograms of hydrogen a day when the project comes on line and will ramp up to 1,000 kilograms.

“With with this technology, we’ll be able to actually develop further in that field without having to worry about gas, so that accelerates our drilling program for that field,” McCabe said. “We’ll start looking at other fields across the [Navajo] Nation, particularly in Utah. The bulk of our oil and gas comes from Utah right now.”

The Navajo Nation relies heavily on energy development for jobs and revenue to operate tribal government. McCabe said a third of the tribe’s “disposable income” comes from mineral energy resources on its three-state reservation.

“We have long have looked at energy as a source for moving forward and providing for our people and looking at how we can extend our government and the services to our community,” McCabe said.

Tribal lands produce 15,000 barrels of oil a day. Reserves in the ground include 3 billion to 5 billion barrels of oil; 2 trillion to 3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas; and 6 billion cubic feet of helium.

“These are known numbers,” McCabe said. “My guess is those numbers could easily be double.”