Bombshell Study: High Methane Emissions Measured Over Gas Field “May Offset Climate Benefits of Natural Gas”

Air sampling by NOAA over Colorado Finds 4% Methane Leakage, More Than Double Industry Claims

Natural-gas operations could release far more methane into the atmosphere than previously thought. [Source: Nature]

How much methane leaks during the entire lifecycle of unconventional gas has emerged as a key question in the fracking debate.  Natural gas is mostly methane (CH4).  And methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than (CO2), which is released when any hydrocarbon, like natural gas, is burned.

Even without a high-leakage rate for shale gas, we know that “Absent a Serious Price for Global Warming Pollution, Natural Gas Is A Bridge To Nowhere.”

But the leakage rate does matter.  A major 2011 study by Tom Wigley of the Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) concluded:

The most important result, however, in accord with the above authors, is that, unless leakage rates for new methane can be kept below 2%, substituting gas for coal is not an effective means for reducing the magnitude of future climate change.

The industry has tended kept most of the data secret while downplaying the leakage issue.  Yet I know of no independent analysis that finds a rate below 2%, including one by the National Energy Technology Laboratory, the DOE’s premier fossil fuel lab.

Now, as the journal Nature reports, we finally have some actual air sampling measurements, and they appear to confirm the higher estimates put forward by Cornell professor Robert Howarth:

When US government scientists began sampling the air from a tower north of Denver, Colorado, they expected urban smog — but not strong whiffs of what looked like natural gas. They eventually linked the mysterious pollution to a nearby natural-gas field, and their investigation has now produced the first hard evidence that the cleanest-burning fossil fuel might not be much better than coal when it comes to climate change.

Led by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado, Boulder, the study estimates that natural-gas producers in an area known as the Denver-Julesburg Basin are losing about 4% of their gas to the atmosphere — not including additional losses in the pipeline and distribution system. This is more than double the official inventory, but roughly in line with estimates made in 2011 that have been challenged by industry. And because methane is some 25 times more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, releases of that magnitude could effectively offset the environmental edge that natural gas is said to enjoy over other fossil fuels.

Methane is 25 times  more efficient than CO2 trapping heat over 100 year — but it is 100 times more efficient than CO2 trapping heat over two decades.

“If we want natural gas to be the cleanest fossil fuel source, methane emissions have to be reduced,” says Gabrielle Pétron, an atmospheric scientist at NOAA and at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and first author on the study, currently in press at the Journal of Geophysical Research. Emissions will vary depending on the site, but Pétron sees no reason to think that this particular basin is unique. “I think we seriously need to look at natural-gas operations on the national scale.”

UPDATE:  The 30-author study, led by NOAA researchers, “Hydrocarbon emissions characterization in the Colorado Front Range – A pilot study” is online here (subs. req’d).

Natural gas emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal per unit of energy when burned, but separate teams at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded last year that methane emissions from shale gas are much larger than previously thought. The industry and some academics branded those findings as exaggerated, but the debate has been marked by a scarcity of hard data.

“It’s great to get some actual numbers from the field,” says Robert Howarth, a Cornell researcher whose team raised concerns about methane emissions from shale-gas drilling in a pair of papers, one published in April last year and another last month (R. W. Howarth et al. Clim. Change Lett. 106, 679–690; 2011; R. W. Howarth et al. Clim. Change in the press). “I’m not looking for vindication here, but [the NOAA] numbers are coming in very close to ours, maybe a little higher,” he says.

Natural gas might still have an advantage over coal when burned to create electricity, because gas-fired power plants tend to be newer and far more efficient than older facilities that provide the bulk of the country’s coal-fired generation. But only 30% of US gas is used to produce electricity, Howarth says, with much of the rest being used for heating, for which there is no such advantage.

Late last year, some of the leading (center-right) economists in the country — Nicholas Z. Muller, Robert Mendelsohn, and William Nordhaus — concluded in a top economic journal that the total damages from natural gas generation exceed its value-added at a low-ball carbon price of $27 per ton! At a price of $65 a ton of carbon, the total damages from natural gas are more than double its value-added!

For the record, stabilizing at 550 ppm atmospheric concentrations of CO2, which would likely still be catastrophic for humanity, would require a price of $330 a metric ton of carbon in 2030, the International Energy Agency (IEA) noted back in 2008. So even leak-free, new gas generation isn’t a good investment if avoiding catastrophic warming is your goal.

Back in April, I wrote about Howarth’s controversial paper, “New study questions shale gas as a bridge fuel,” arguing:

This is a potentially game-unchanging conclusion for one of the seminal energy policy choices of this decade — how hard to push shale gas here and around the world.  And yet, as the lead author Cornell Prof. Robert Howarth explained to me in an interview, it is based upon very limited data.  And that’s in part because the industry has fought efforts to get more data.  Prof. Howarth agreed with my suggestion that this would be a very ripe topic for the National Academy of Sciences to review.

Howarth’s analysis does in fact appear to be vindicated by these real-world observations.  I asked him for comment.  He writes of the Nature piece:

As they point out, our estimates seem to be a little on the low side.  That’s not surprising, as we were pretty conservative in our published analysis.  This new paper has the first actual measurements at the landscape scale, which is exactly what has been needed (as we concluded in our first and second papers).

In truth, it would not have surprised me if their numbers had come out either considerably higher than or considerably lower than ours, but it is quite gratifying to see that they basically confirm our estimates, and suggest in fact that the greenhouse gas emissions are even somewhat worse than we had concluded.  This is bad news for the planet, but good news for our credibility.

He directed me to an online version of his new 2012 paper, which concludes:

We reiterate our conclusion from our April 2011 paper that shale gas is not a suitable bridge fuel for the 21st Century.

The fact that natural gas is a bridge fuel to nowhere was also demonstrated by the International Energy Agency in its big June 2011 report on gas — see IEA’s “Golden Age of Gas Scenario” Leads to More Than 6°F Warming and Out-of-Control Climate Change.  That study — which had both coal and oil consumption peaking in 2020 — made abundantly clear that if we want to avoid catastrophic warming, we need to start getting off of all fossil fuels ASAP.

I’ll end with some more background detail on the study from Nature:

The first clues appeared in 2007, when NOAA researchers noticed occasional plumes of pollutants including methane, butane and propane in air samples taken from a 300-metre-high atmospheric monitoring tower north of Denver. The NOAA researchers worked out the general direction that the pollution was coming from by monitoring winds, and in 2008, the team took advantage of new equipment and drove around the region, sampling the air in real time. Their readings led them to the Denver-Julesburg Basin, where more than 20,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled during the past four decades.

Most of the wells in the basin are drilled into ‘tight sand’ formations that require the same fracking technology being used in shale formations. This process involves injecting a slurry of water, chemicals and sand into wells at high pressure to fracture the rock and create veins that can carry trapped gas to the well. Afterwards, companies need to pump out the fracking fluids, releasing bubbles of dissolved gas as well as burps of early gas production. Companies typically vent these early gases into the atmosphere for up to a month or more until the well hits its full stride, at which point it is hooked up to a pipeline.

The team analysed the ratios of various pollutants in the air samples and then tied that chemical fingerprint back to emissions from gas-storage tanks built to hold liquid petroleum gases before shipment. In doing so, they were able to work out the local emissions that would be necessary to explain the concentrations that they were seeing in the atmosphere. Some of the emissions come from the storage tanks, says Pétron, “but a big part of it is just raw gas that is leaking from the infrastructure”. Their range of 2.3–7.7% loss, with a best guess of 4%, is slightly higher than Corn­ell’s estimate of 2.2–3.8% for shale-gas drilling and production. It is also higher than calculations by the EPA, which revised its methodology last year and roughly doubled the official US inventory of emissions from the natural-gas industry over the past decade. Howarth says the EPA methodology translates to a 2.8% loss.

The Cornell group had estimated that 1.9% of the gas produced over the lifetime of a typical shale-gas well escapes through fracking and well completion alone. NOAA’s study doesn’t differentiate between gas from fracking and leaks from any other point in the production process, but Pétron says that fracking clearly contributes to some of the gas her team measured.

Capturing and storing gases that are being vented during the fracking process is feasible, but industry says that these measures are too costly to adopt. An EPA rule that is due out as early as April would promote such changes by regulating emissions from the gas fields.

Officials with America’s Natural Gas Alliance, based in Washington DC, say that the study is difficult to evaluate based on a preliminary review, but in a statement to Nature they add that “the findings raise questions and warrant a closer examination by the scientific community”.

I think a NAS study is warranted, but these actual measurements, coupled with the myriad other analyses raising questions about the “dash to gas,” are more than reason enough to slow down any major investment in natural gas infrastructure that we will be stuck with for decades.

Filling up existing underutilized natural gas power plants to generate electricity that displaces coal remains a reasonable near-term idea.  But building a significant number of new natural gas fired power plants — or  building a major infrastructure for natural gas vehicles, which don’t even have the efficiency benefits of gas power plants — remains a counterproductive lock-in of scarce resources needed elsewhere to avert catastrophic global warming.

29 Responses to Bombshell Study: High Methane Emissions Measured Over Gas Field “May Offset Climate Benefits of Natural Gas”

  1. In a weird way the rapid warming from methane might help humans act sooner.

    The slo-mo of CO2 combined with short-term aerosol cooling is hiding the long-term impact of our emissions. Methane’s near-term bump might help wake people up sooner.

    But hopefully this helps put to rest the notion that natural gas is a “clean” alternative to renewables.

  2. Michael S says:

    These studies highlight the need of strong standards in the upcoming fracking regulations from the Obama administration.
    The 20 year vs. 100 year timeline discussion is always going to be contentious, but if gas improves the loss rate then they are much much better than coal.
    Let’s be honest and recognize that we need a price on carbon. Preventing fossil fuel development doesn’t make nearly as much sense as making it economically uncompetitive.

  3. M. Robin Church says:

    Fracking fluids should be stripped of gas before storage, and early gas production should be flared rather than vented. At least that way its only CO2 versus methane. Also all flanges and valve stems in the gas collecting areas should be checked for leakage by state inspectors to ensure a good operation.

  4. prokaryotes says:

    Here is an article about pipe leakage, which causes customer to pay 40.00$ extra each year. And Howarth’s recent study, a podcast from january 19th, and a video from last year, where he too explains why his estimates are so conservative

    Natural gas business is a threat, because Methane is a major Greenhouse gas AND because methane breaks down to water vapor in the stratosphere, where it destroys the ozone layer. IT is estimated that human methane emissions (so far) are contributing to 1/3 of the observed trends. It is 5 past midnight, shut down fossil exploration!

    Act now before it is to late! Otherwise the northern hemisphere will become uninhabitable for crops to grow and to run outside, because of UVA/UVB/UVC radiation.

  5. Joan Savage says:

    Shouldn’t the carbon ton pricing for methane be 25x to 100x the price per carbon ton for carbon dioxide? The greenhouse gas (GHG) effect comparison is made molecule to molecule, so it’s easy to figure the price, as each of the chemical species has one atom of carbon per molecule.
    Were CO2 priced at $65 per ton of carbon content, then methane should cost $1625 to $6500 per ton of carbon content.

  6. We need to start moving towards a carbon neutral nuclear and renewable energy economy.

    Obviously, we can’t completely replace our use of fossil fuels overnight. But we can begin a gradual transition to a carbon neutral economy by simply mandating that a gradually growing percentage of electricity, heating, and transportation fuels be derived from carbon neutral resources until our use of carbon polluting resources is finally ended before the year 2040 or 2050.

    Marcel F. Williams

  7. Andy Revkin says:

    The industry does indeed seem determined to kill its prospects by not working harder at cutting leakage from infrastructure and unnecessary emissions during well completion. The best practices, which stanch leaks at a PROFIT, have been clear since 2009:

  8. fj says:

    have to stop burning stuff

  9. with the doves says:

    They both make a lot of sense to me.

  10. Mike Roddy says:

    Once again, you’re doing important work, Joe. Most of us who do not subscribe to Nature would not have known about this study.

    I’m interested in Revkin’s reaction, since he’s hitched his wagon to the “bridge fuel” nonsense, and chose to disbelieve Howarth’s study. I expect a stall, since Andy’s veer to the right has been pretty consistent the last few years.

    We also need to know the Obama Administration response here. We will soon learn- though probably not until November- whether they work for us or the fossil fuel companies. Maybe, just this once, they will surprise us.

  11. Mike Roddy says:

    I just saw Andy’s comment, thanks for chipping in here.

    Don’t hold your breath about industry changing to “best practices”, though. If that were their m.o. we wouldn’t be seeing constant pipeline leaks, watershed damage, and so on.

    There’s an important point that you don’t get: the fossil fuel companies dwell on the dark side. That results in all of their decisions being financial ones. Expect their response here to be an announcement that they are going to reduce methane emissions at well sites. This won’t happen, because there are thousands of drillers, many of them wildcatters, and very little monitoring or self regulation. We also don’t know the extent to which these leaks are even preventable. You need to learn these facts.

  12. Erik Schlenker-Goodrich says:

    Quite true, Andy. I’d add that while many of the methane emission reduction technologies are proven, and often cost-effective (though perhaps less so right now given the low cost of Nat Gas), there are a variety of institutional barriers in the way of industry groups prioritizing these technologies for purposes of capital investment.

    Moreover, industry is not the sole culprit: lax government oversight contributes quite a bit. E.g., with Federal onshore oil and gas development, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management:

    *relies on outdated policies (crafted in 1980);
    *doesn’t consider methane waste & inefficiencies in its planning and environmental review documents;
    *only reluctantly gives the climate side attention (and does little more than cut & paste boilerplate language w/o taking any action);
    *rubber stamps industry choices;
    *lacks enforcement/oversight resources; and
    *doesn’t mandate methane redux technologies and practices as as stipulation of owning a lease.

    I’d also submit that too much “rah, rah, rah” emphasis on Natural Gas as a “bridge fuel,” including by some greens, has chilled efforts to ensure proper oversight and glossed over serious problems. That’s changing — maybe even rapidly — but we have a ways to go.

    Finally, we should recognize that natural gas implicates not only technical issues (which, in a vacuum, may appear “manageable”) but, also, a political problem (i.e., is there sufficient political willpower to constrain Natural Gas impacts — and to thus push back against an increasingly powerful fossil fuel industry — within acceptable levels?).

    The answer to the latter question makes me very nervous.


    Erik Schlenker-Goodrich
    Director, Climate and Energy Program
    Western Environmental Law Center

  13. Raindog says:

    I would say that Mike is absolutely right when he says this:

    “You need to learn these facts.”

    I’d wait and see what this paper actually says and how they came to their numbers and then wait for knowledgeable people to respond who may have key information unknown to the authors.

    Everything should be done to minimize methane leakage.

    They have huge error bars and if on the low side this is no different than the industry estimates.

    I also would point out that it sounds like a lot of the methane that they measured came from storage tanks for oil and other liquid hydrocarbons. This methane leakage should be attributed to oil production not gas production. Most gas is produced without a significant liquid component. If they are taking all of the methane that leaks out of both the oil and gas operations and then saying that is 4% of all gas produced in the basin that is not really accurate. The methane that leaks during oil and other liquids production should be assigned to oil production and only gas that leaks out from natural gas wells should be attributed to gas wells.

    And this study appears to have very little to do with fracking. It is in no way a vindication of Howarth et al’s assertion that shale gas is worse than coal and that fracking is the problem.

    I’d be for monitoring of these sites and imposing mandatory limits on emissions. It will save the resource for use and decrease GHG emissions at the same time.

  14. Gail Zawacki says:

    People in Wyoming had to threaten to sue the EPA last fall to put them in non-compliance for ozone due to emissions from drilling making their lives miserable:

    As for fracking, animals are dying from leaks:

  15. Bill Goedecke says:

    Thank you for the posting Mr Romm – very interesting and informative.

  16. John Tucker says:

    Thats for posting this – I doubt it will make you any friends. I had/have not seen it discussed elsewhere and would not have expected the leak range to be so high. It seems the situation would be documented more this late in the game.

    But then again it seems that fracking wouldn’t even be legal, and the huge NG push, beyond the short term of just replacing coal, deemed absurd were people paying attention.

  17. John Tucker says:

    And all things considered, it might turn out even the push for short term replacing coal with it was not such a good idea.

  18. Here’s a rough estimate of what 4% means in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in the Denver-Julesberg Basin, I get that global warming potential can be in the eyes of the beholder, but the point is, we’re talking meaningful emissions and at the same time, meaningful opportunities to do something about it.

  19. David Lewis says:

    I think its a mistake to point to this data and say it somehow vindicates Howarth, although it does. This is an old story. The new data confirms data coming from everywhere except industry.

    The GAO reported similar data in its November 2010 “Opportunities Exist to Capture Vented and Flared Natural Gas…” report, i.e. GAO-11-34.

    Gas producers gave their version of what was leaking to the GAO which the GAO reported, but the GAO reported that “estimates from the EPA and the Western Regional Air Partnership (WRAP) showed volumes as high as 30 times higher“. That is, the EPA reported estimates indicating as much as 4.2% of US gas produced is vented or flared, while WRAP reported the loss to be as high as 5%.

    Howarth just looked at existing data like this. He didn’t measure things directly himself. A lot of the opposing debate has gone into discrediting him, as if shooting the messenger makes a difference.

    One joke is how the industry blew its handling of the GAO report when it appeared. The GAO focus was on revenue lost to the Treasury. Most gas produced is not subject to federal royalties. And only some of the wasted gas can be recovered economically. So the gas the GAO was officially talking about was that which could have been recovered economically that was under federal jurisdiction. GAO asserted that $23 million was lost to Treasury each year because royalties were not paid on this gas. Industry spokespeople did not question the figure of $23 million. What they said was it was a drop in the bucket compared to the $9 billion they pay in royalties to Treasury every year. But if you do the math what you find is that industry, by not contesting the $23 million figure GAO released, basically admitted to wasting 750 billion cubic feet of gas the previous year. Thats 3.75% of all the gas it produced. I wrote more extensively on this at the time here

    As far as actual leakage to the atmosphere as opposed to what is flared goes: the EPA is revising GRI/EPA 1996, “Methane Emissions from the Natural Gas Industry” which is the holy grail on methane emissions from gas production. It was used by the IPCC, the American Petroleum Insititute, the California Climate Action Registry, etc. The document which refers to this ongoing revision is Technical Support Document: Petroleum and Natural Gas Systems. You have to do some calculating with the numbers presented, but what you get is that 3.25% of US natural gas production is being vented to the atmosphere, according to the EPA. When the EPA says this, they know that their assessment is taken to be authoritative by the IPCC, API, etc. I wrote about this a while ago here.

    The GAO was taken in the last time, i.e. in 2004, when it put out a report on methane leaking from US oil and gas production operations, but there is something to think about what it reported then. That report was GAO-04-809 “Natural Gas Flaring and Venting…” At the time, the GAO bought the line that the US industry was the cinderella of the global oil and gas industry. Supposedly, in the US, as per industry BS, less than 1% of gas production was leaked as methane, but in the rest of the world, my GOD, the data showed its a disaster out there, why leakage was 3% or more. Now take the actual US methane leakage as 3 – 5% as stated by EPA, WRAP, Howarth, and now NOAA, and think about the rest of the world where mayhem ensues. Why is 10 or 15% out of the question? This is an industry that even in the US uses natural gas coming out of wells under pressure as a source of power, i.e. instead of compressed air. They don’t bother to control leakage they could make money on because they know how to make even more money finding and leaking even more gas with the capital investment they’d have to use to control the leaks. This says something about how a price on carbon would limit emissions of carbon – these clowns could make money limiting their emissions and they don’t.

    Back to my point: in other words, the historic use of gas worldwide has added up to it would have been better for the climate if coal had been used instead. The caveat is this is only true for a fairly short period of time, say 100 – 200 years, after which we might be able to say well using that gas makes whatever descendants we have that are still living then a bit better off. Great, eh?
    That the leakage is this bad is strictly a matter of US industry denial that there is a climate problem. This is seen in the GAO analysis. They published WRAP data which contrasted what US producers were doing in the US with what British Petroleum was doing in the US. BP leaks were dramatically lower than US producers, on operations in the same country, i.e. the US. See: Challenged by Carbon, by Dr. Bryan Lovell, President of the Geological Society of London, former senior executive, BP. Shell and BP threw in the towel on the climate science denial campaign just before Kyoto was signed and Exxon didn’t. BP directed its operators in the US to do something about methane emissions. They did so and made money doing it. I reviewed the book here.

  20. Steve Bloom says:

    Joe, a post on those towers (FLUXNET) would be very informative IMO. Few people even know they exist.

    Well, I wasted some time running down Andy’s claim that best practices can save the fracking day at a profit, and I’m unimpressed. The upshot is that he’s pretty much just taking BP’s (remember them?) word. That plus his reflexive trashing of the Howarth study should cause everyone to question his judgement.

    *Maybe* best practices really can knock down fugitive emissions enough to matter, but I see no real evidence for that, and in the current political climate it seems entirely too hopeful to rely on the administration to come up with rules with sufficient teeth to do the job.

  21. David Lewis says:

    re: BP

    see page 15, GAO-11-34. Look at Figure 3. GAO says the N. San Juan and S. San Juan Basins are controlled by BP. This chart was put into the report by GAO to illustrate the difference an attitude at the CEO level of a company can make.

  22. Steve Bloom says:

    But David, that still leaves the question of how reliable the BP figures are. Do you think they are?

  23. John Harris says:

    Has any research been published on the methane released by coal mining? It would be interesting to see the cmparison between coal mining, oil extraction and gas extraction together with the downstream comparison of CO2 from burning.

  24. John Tucker says:

    And indeed it seems now Pandora’s box has been opened with respect to the nuclear option:

    Germany is openly pushing gas and even coal in the developing world.

    Germany cautions Pakistan on nuclear power generation risks

    [“something, something, renewables…” {if you think a substantial renewable install is going actually occur here then I dont know what to say, other than you are totally unrealistic}]

    He also assured cooperation in the energy generation through coal.

    Pakistan is unable to materialise Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project. “The Iran nuclear programme should not affect the Pakistan natural gas programme,” he added.

    ( )
    [No civilian nuclear power generation is or has been found to been involved in a terror plot ever to the best of my knowledge]

    Gazprom to Double Natural Gas Reserves in Europe

    ( )

  25. Joe Romm says:

    No, as the links make clear.

  26. Evan Ravitz says:

    The fossil industries point out that renewables get more subsidies -percentage-wise. But the fossil industries get a much larger total subsidy, and recycles it to buy far more of Congress than renewables can. And they’re already way bigger than renewables even without the extra subsidies. They can also buy the media. Somehow we must stop SUBSIDIZING the problem. Maybe state ballot initiatives, like the one which became Colorado’s Amendment 37, the “renewable mandate.”

  27. Craig Dillon says:

    I keep seeing different numbers regarding the CO2 equivalent for CH4 effect on warming. I see 20, 25, and 30 which I think are for the impact over 100 years. I have seen 70, and now from you, 100, as the immediate impact. So the question is, what is the warming effect of a specific level of CH4? Presently, it is at 1.85PPM. At 70, that means a CO2 equivalence of 129 ppm CO2. At, 100, its 185. Now, the marginal difference from the historical norm, we have to subtract the .7ppm that was the historic norm.

    But, what do we use for the multiplier? 20, 25, 70 or 100? I inclined to use 100.


  28. Joe Romm says:

    100 for 20 years compared to CO2.

  29. The methane from dairy manure ponds in California (about 2% of this largest dairy state’s greenhouse gas emissions) is right there on the surface waiting for some producer, and the state will even give you an offset credit (tradeable under the CA cap-and-trade plan) for taking it away or even for flaring it. Why drill down to rock and fracture it when there is a methane bonanza waiting for producers in California?