A new study of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) wells in Colorado and Utah confirms an earlier study that methane is leaking from the wells at alarming rates. The study indicates as much as 9% of the methane gas is leaking into the air at those wells.
The study raises concerns about the environmental benefits of natural gas. A boom in gas production is transforming the US energy system and the economies of many communities.
The researchers, who both hold appointments with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado in Boulder, released a study in February 2012 that first sparked concern by suggesting that up to 4% of the methane produced at a field near Denver was escaping into the atmosphere.
Up to 9% of gas is leaking at the well study found
The research team reported new findings at an American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco, California, last month. They presented new Colorado data that support the earlier work, as well as preliminary results from a field study in the Uinta Basin of Utah suggesting even higher rates of methane leakage — an eye-popping 9% of the total production.
That figure is nearly double the cumulative loss rates estimated from industry data. The gas industry disputes the claims as one would expect.
This has serious consequences for the entire gas industry nationwide. If methane, which is a much more potent and dangerous greenhouse gas than CO2, is leaking from fields across the country at similar rates, it could be offsetting much of the climate benefit of the ongoing shift from coal- to gas-fired plants for electricity generation Jeff Tollefson wrote in “Nature” on January 2nd.
“We were expecting to see high methane levels, but I don’t think anybody really comprehended the true magnitude of what we would see,” says Colm Sweeney, who led the aerial component of the study as head of the aircraft program at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder.
The NOAA researchers collected their data in February as part of a broader analysis of air pollution in the Uinta Basin, using ground-based equipment and an aircraft to make detailed measurements of various pollutants, including methane concentrations. They then used atmospheric modeling to calculate the level of methane emissions required to reach those concentrations, and then compared that with industry data on gas production to obtain the percentage escaping into the atmosphere through venting and leaks.
The results of this study build on an earlier study done in 2008 in the Denver-Julesburg basin in Colorado.
There is a great deal at stake here. A study published in April by scientists at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Princeton University in New Jersey suggests that shifting to natural gas from coal-fired generators has immediate climatic benefits as long as the cumulative leakage rate from natural-gas production is below 3.2%; the benefits accumulate over time and are even larger if the gas plants replace older coal plants.
If the numbers in the Colorado and Utah studies are correct, leakage of 4% to 9% would mean that coal fired plants would actually have less of a carbon footprint than gas fired plants taking into account the methane lost at the wellhead. We might be making tings worse while trying to make them better.
To see if that number holds up, the NOAA scientists are also taking part in a comprehensive assessment of US natural-gas emissions, conducted by the University of Texas at Austin and the EDF, with various industry partners. The researchers expect to submit the first of these studies for publication by February, and say that the others will be complete within a year.
So all eyes will be on that study to see if it supports the findings in the Colorado and Utah studies. The implications for America’s energy industry are enormous. So are the risks to our climate if the results are found to be accurate nationwide. The wind and solar companies will be watching this as closely as the coal and gas industries—and EPA regulators.
If you like this article share it, Tweet it, or follow me on Facebook.