Methane emissions are still a thorn in the side of natural gas production

 

Burning coal belches about twice as much carbon dioxide as burning natural gas, but the question of whether natural gas is a bridge to renewable energy or just a bridge to nowhere hinges on how much greenhouse gas escapes before it is used. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is 21 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide, over a 100-year period. And according to research by the Environmental Defense Fund, if a little over three percent of the methane produced escapes during production, natural gas plants no longer beat coal plants at the climate game.

Unfortunately, even with U.S. climate policy—such as it is—resting on America’s role as the “Saudi Arabia of gas” no one knows exactly how much methane escapes from the natural gas supply chain. The latest of several mixed reports on the subject falls to the alarming side of the spectrum, because it detected fugitive methane above three percent of the amount produced. While it doesn’t settle the debate, it tested one way regulators could inventory escaping natural gas, and it also underscores the need for better methane tracking and capture.

As part of a larger study on air quality in Utah’s oil and gas fields, researchers flew a sensor-laden airplane over the Uintah Basin and found that the amount of methane released there is 6 to 12 percent of total production, on average. Since the team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) needed consistent wind speeds to test the new technique, the measurement is only a snapshot from a single day in February 2012, and doesn’t provide the big picture for the whole state, much less the whole industry.

uintahplane.png
The research plane used to detect methane emissions from the Uintah oil and gas fields comes in for a landing.

Still, the current observations from Utah are much higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recent report of 0.88 percent escaping from U.S. gas production on average. Some saw the EPA’s numbers from earlier this year—a downward revision from earlier reports—as a win for the green cred of gas. But that figure is based on estimates from typical leakage rates, not independent field monitoring. To get a more complete picture, we’ll have to wait for results from wider-ranging studies.

The current study was also a proof-of-concept for one way to track rogue methane, something that will help researchers and could be useful if the feds regulate it more tightly in the future. Currently, the EPA’s oil and gas emissions rules, adopted last April, require producers to burn methane off wells in gas flares (which is still wasteful and emits carbon dioxide), or use “green completion” technologies that capture methane and other air pollutants during production. By 2015, the rule phases out flaring and requires emissions capture technology.

However, the rule focuses on limiting volatile organic compounds (VOC) emissions—precursors to ozone, which is a health risk at ground level. Capturing methane is a virtuous side effect of the new Clean Air Act standards for VOCs. It’s not clear if the EPA will also seek strict standards for methane, as it did for VOCs. But the issue has northeastern states, which want methane standards, squaring off with heartland and western states.

In 2011, the attorneys general from New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Massachusetts notified the EPA of their intent to sue for not regulating oil and gas methane emissions under the Clean Air Act. This May, Oklahoma, Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming sent the EPA a letter warning the agency not to negotiate a friendly settlement with the eastern states, without at least including energy producing states in the discussion.

Meanwhile, climatologists are still debating the issue of how much we should worry about leaked methane negating the greenhouse gas benefits of moving away from coal in the first place.

Sarah Jane Keller is the editorial fellow for High Country News.  Photo by Sonja Wolter, courtesy of CIRES.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Central Colorado Conservancy, located in Salida, Colorado, is seeking a Conservation Program Manager dedicated to managing the Conservancy's land protection program which includes developing and...
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.