Bridge To Nowhere? NOAA Confirms High Methane Leakage Rate Up To 9% From Gas Fields, Gutting Climate Benefit

Photo by Walter Disney

Researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have reconfirmed earlier findings of high rates of methane leakage from natural gas fields. If these findings are replicated elsewhere, they would utterly vitiate the climate benefit of natural gas, even when used to switch off coal.

Indeed, if the previous findings — of 4% methane leakage over a Colorado gas field — were a bombshell, then the new measurements reported by the journal Nature are thermonuclear:

… the research team reported 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 — which are already higher in Utah than in Colorado.

The Uinta Basin is of particular interest because fracking has increased there over the past decade.

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 — 25 times more potent over a century and 72 to 100 times more potent over a 20-year period.

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.” That was first 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.

A March 2012 study by climatologist Ken Caldeira and tech guru Nathan Myhrvold came to a similar conclusion using different methodology (see “You Can’t Slow Projected Warming With Gas, You Need ‘Rapid and Massive Deployment’ of Zero-Carbon Power“). They found that even if you could switch entirely over to natural gas in four decades, you “won’t see any substantial decrease in global temperatures for up to 250 years. There’s almost no climate value in doing it.” And that was using conventional (i.e. low) leakage rates.

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.

Wigley, it should be noted, was looking at the combined warming impact from three factors — from the methane leakage, from the gas plant CO2 emissions, and from the drop in sulfate aerosols caused by switching out coal for gas. In a country like the United States, which strongly regulates sulfate aerosols, that third factor is probably much smaller. Of course, in countries like China and India, it would be a big deal.

An April 2012 study found that a big switch from coal to gas would only reduce “technology warming potentials” by about 25% over the first three decades — far different than the typical statement that you get a 50% drop in CO2 emissions from the switch. And that assumed a total methane leakage of 2.4% (using EPA’s latest estimate). The study found that if the total leakage exceeds 3.2% “gas becomes worse for the climate than coal for at least some period of time.”

Leakage of 4%, let alone 9%, would call into question the value of unconventional gas as any sort of bridge fuel. Colm Sweeney, the head of the aircraft program at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, who led the study’s aerial component, told Nature:

“We were expecting to see high methane levels, but I don’t think anybody really comprehended the true magnitude of what we would see.”

The industry has tended kept most of the data secret while downplaying the leakage issue. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is working with the industry to develop credible leakage numbers in a variety of locations.

The earlier NOAA findings were called into question by Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations. The NOAA researchers “have a defence of the Colorado study in press,” Nature notes.

Right now, fracking would seem to be a bridge to nowhere.

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46 Responses to Bridge To Nowhere? NOAA Confirms High Methane Leakage Rate Up To 9% From Gas Fields, Gutting Climate Benefit

  1. A Siegel says:

    Actually, if these are the numbers across the industry (which don’t count leakage moving from well to the end user, by the way), then this increased natural gas might not be a ‘bridge to nowhere’ but a ‘bridge to a nastier future, sooner’.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Thanks for being your usual thorough self here, Joe. In the last couple of years, we have seen studies claiming everything from half the emissions of coal (from the gas industry) and no climate benefit at all (Howarth). I had a feeling that Howarth was eventually going to be vindicated, and the first clue was the ferocity of the gas industry’s attacks on him. The media, of course, lazily confirmed the industry studies as the real ones.

    Plenty of people are still fooled by gas company claims, including the New York Times in their latest global warming editorial.

    When is the dust going to settle? Is the NOAA study going to be accepted soon by the media and policy makers, or will this turn into another exhausting ground war (as with whether it’s actually getting warmer, etc)?

  3. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe wrote: “Right now, fracking would seem to be a bridge to nowhere.”

    Does this mean that CP will stop printing articles by Ron Pernick which promote “environmentally responsible natural gas” — which is just as much a myth as “clean coal” — while blithely ignoring the massive environmental problems caused by fracking?

  4. rollin says:

    I don’t think the government has realized that the term reduce has to actually mean “less of”. The old bait and switch with fossil fuels is a scam just like any other con game. Eliminate the use of carbon dioxide and methane producing fuels is the only way to go to have half a chance of slowing global warming at this point. Any other objective is doomed to failure.
    Remember that old show “Outer Limits” where the intro said ” do not adjust the horizontal, do not adjust the vertical, we are in control”. Well, shortly “we” will not be in control, so let’s stop looking at half measures or fake-outs like this one.

  5. Paul Klinkman says:

    Methane, natural gas, is an immoral fossil fuel. It kills our great-grandchildren’s future for the benefit of a few.

    First we need a stiff methane emissions tax. A methane emissions tax will put a tighter lid on methane emissions all the way up and down the pipeline. Second, we need a carbon tax.

  6. Joan Savage says:

    This disturbing revelation about fugitive methane should prompt a revised analysis of contributions of all greenhouse gases and their degradation rates. This is not the only miserable news that should drive a revised analysis. Internationally, increased HFCs from air conditioners and intense growth in coal for electricity also change the big picture, and for the worse.

  7. Mike Roddy says:

    You’re right, Secular. I get the feeling that there is a divide between CP leadership and corporate Democrats, who may have been the ones to slip in Pernick’s piece.

    Joe needs to set up his own store, to keep this from happening. The clammy embrace of sold out Democrats just isn’t worth the money and “access” that they claim to provide.

  8. David Kronner says:

    At least we need to stop fracking now,and start making jobs via.alternate energy resources.

  9. John says:

    Computer hackers must unite and take a moral stand against all fossil fuel corporations and attack their computer systems. Shut them down, steal their emails, get this inside info to Wikileaks.

  10. Leif says:

    Won’t the Fossil Barons ever stop trading the people’s climate, air, water, oceans, and dirt for their personal profits?

    Won’t “We the People” ever stop allowing those same Fossil Barons to profit from polluting the commons?

    Won’t “We the People’ go broke cleaning up the mess well before Fossil Barons willfully funnel some of that profit to the well being of humanity at a lower profit margin? It is not like they are headed for the poor house. After all it is their planet also.

    Injustice ignored = Injustice condoned.

  11. Gail Zawacki says:

    From the European Environmental Bureau (linked to here:

    “Methane is a major source of background tropospheric ozone.”

    “Together with particulate matter, ozone is the air pollutant with the highest estimated impact on human health. Ozone is a powerful and aggressive oxidising agent, elevated levels of which cause respiratory health problems and lead to premature mortality. High levels of ozone can also damage plants, leading to reduced agricultural crop yields and decreased forest growth.”

    [note: decreased forest growth has become rapidly dying trees thanks to background ozone]

    “Current measures on ozone precursors have focused primarily on decreasing the peaks of ozone, especially in urban areas, and therefore on precursors such as NOx and non-methane VOCs. However, over the past decades background levels of tropospheric ozone have been steadily rising. While many of the cheapest and easiest measures to decrease these other ozone precursors have already been taken, specific controls for methane are still lacking.”

    “Methane is a relatively short-lived gas, with an atmospheric lifespan of 12 years. Cutting emissions of methane can therefore have an impact on global climate in the near term, thus complementing the benefits from necessary CO2 mitigation.”

    “Because of the well-mixed nature of methane, measures taken anywhere can impact the availability of methane for ozone formation…”

    [note: humans cannot live without trees. Aside from lumber, fruit, nuts, shade and other splendid products, forests are a major CO2 sink and oxygen producer. We need to stop emitting ozone precursors, pronto.]

  12. Lou Grinzo says:

    Two points I try to make whenever this topic comes up:

    1. Of course we’re going to find out that the leakage rate of fracked natural gas is very high. Consider what fracking entails and the scale on which we’re already doing it while trying to minimize the cost of the extraction and transportation operations.

    2. Even if we could access every last molecule of natural gas in the ground with zero leakage and zero other environmental impact (contaminated water, etc.), then burning it would still be a horrifically bad idea, simply because of all the CO2 it would put into the air.

  13. Dave Bradley says:

    See As long as we continue to use natural gas at rates at 24 tcfy or even more, we have a big fracking problem.

  14. D. R. Tucker says:

    The new year begins on a sad note for the environmental community mourning the tragic drowning last week of Rebecca Tarbotton in Mexico. The Executive Director of The Rainforest Action Network is remembered by RAN’s Forest Program Director,
    Lindsay Allen. Next Peter Kelley joins us to share America’s Wind Energy Association’s response to the 11th hour congressional passage of the Production Tax Credit for wind. And last but not least, climate activist and author Eli Sparks shares her hopes for 2013!

    Read more:
    Under Creative Commons License: Attribution

  15. Jack Burton says:

    With the “Patriot Act” in place as law, I fear such action would be regarded as domestic terrorism and anyone engaging in it would be turned over to the US secret torture prison gulag that is now in place.
    Or, as with Wiki. The secret police and their foreign allies have other ways to take a person out.
    This world has changed, you can’t fight the establishment without grave risk. As the Occupy Wall Streeters. The FBI ran a carefully crafted campaign using agents and local police to terrorize the Occupiers.
    This is a police state, and they mean to defend the establishment. Including their allies the fossil fuel industry.

  16. Jack Burton says:

    I read somewhere a figure for leakage in Fracking. I do not remember the figure. But it was VERY high. Leakage from fracking will be a major problem as this expands across the USA and Europe.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Mike, the Rightwing MSM never lie, misrepresent and serve their owners in Big Business ‘lazily’. They do it deliberately,cynically and wickedly. You can bet your house that these findings will be suppressed and denied in the usual manner.

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The Demopublicans are just as totally controlled by their bankrollers as the Republicrats. Their two favoured tactics, the Big Lie, the repetition of lies until they become established as the truth in the public mind, are absolutely ubiquitous in public discourse. Lies are the currency of public life.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    In fact it kills our children’s future. There will not be many great grandchildren, and they’ll curse us.

  20. Ecopolitidae says:

    We climate “hawks” need to face the hard fact that remote industrial wind energy has spurred a rapid transition to natural gas electricity generation (called “wind catchers”). Many big, remote central solar plants are also adding and/or increasing natural gas generation to achieve 24/7 capacity. Business as usual is not the answer, we need feed-in tariffs for all interested investors that will ignite a REAL and DEMOCRATIC renewable energy revolution that incentivizes generation at the point of use. We can expect more fracking and methane emissions now that the wind production tax has been extended.

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.’ And we have a surfeit of sorrows raining down on our heads, each in league with the others, and all the twisted offspring of human hubris and ‘elite’ greed.

  22. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    In your polity you will never get any policy that threatens the tens of trillions in fossil fuel ‘assets’. Those living ‘liar-bilities’, your politicians, will never bite the hand that feeds them, so you need a second Revolution. It’s as simple as that.

  23. Ozonator says:

    The holy market is still not putting a value on the disease, death, and destruction (aka free speech) of the extreme GOP.

  24. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It’s a bridge to Hell. It looks like we are going to be driven across it, come what may.

  25. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It’s only a problem for those troublemakers who value human life more greatly than money. More and more one can see just why Dick Cheney took such a particular interest in ensuring that the Frackenstein monster would not be unduly hindered.

  26. Buzz B says:

    I wish I could get my head around the actual facts for this particular problem. Realistically, the complete shift away from fossil fuels is decades (if not generations) away. We’re not going to be able to stop the natural gas boom. So we have to deal with these fugitive emissions. At least one recent MIT studies says the emissions are far lower than this article suggsts:

    We need better reporting by industry and monitoring by governments as to the actual amount of these emissions, so we can find a cost effective capture technology and implement it. See

    There is very little reporting (including in an article like this one) as to the anti-leaking, anti-venting technologies that exist and their cost.

    Actual emissions plus tech solutions >> that’s the info we need to have to properly adjudge the benefits of CH4 vis-a-vis coal.
    If the natural gas industry wants to be seen as a cleaner alternative to coal, they should be seeking and providing this info as well. That they’re not makes me skeptical that they have the solutions.

  27. Buzz B says:

    Here’s a great piece by the NRDC on the profitability of certain emissioncapture technologies:

  28. Greatgrandma Kat says:

    “We the People” will only move to stop whats happening to our planet when WE are absolutely convinced that WE will not have to give up anything to achieve it. Only when OUR current lifestyle will NOT be impacted will enough of US protest loudly enough to make a diffrence. I wouldn’t bet on that happening in time to make a diffrence to our children. WE are now at the point in this misadvnture that only a complete stop of fossil fuels will give our children a future, by the way any of those WE that are under 50 aren’t looking at to bright a future either.

  29. Ed Dodge says:

    Or we could use the methane to power our cars and power plants and leave the coal and petroleum in the ground.

    Methane burns clean, has no contaminants, is renewable and exists in vast deposits all over the world available to everyone.

    As for GHG potential, the Earth already produces massive methane emissions without any help from people at all. By using methane ourselves we could learn to operate in sync with planetary cycles.

    No more oil spills, no more mountain top removal, no more wars for oil. Methane production from sewage, landfills and farms in every community.

    Do you really think we can power airplanes and container ships with solar panels and batteries? Cities and armies with wind and geothermal? We need solutions that work today, not hopefully in 20 or 30 years. CH4 is the way forward.

  30. taranaki says:

    So we are going to take the one thing that is finally giving the US the competitive edge that is the reason blue collar manufacturing jobs have been coming back to the US, very low energy prices from natural gas, and ban it.

  31. Over fifty, hell. I’m over sixty, and I can already see that climate change will have an adverse effect on my remaining years — both terms of the weather I have to deal with and the effect on the economy.

    And that’s only the tangibles — my psychological angst over the destruction of the planet is perhaps the worst of it, as I have spent my life as an environmentalist trying to prevent just that outcome.

  32. Would it help if we renamed methane “deathane?”

  33. Solar Jim says:

    ALL fossil and fissile “fuels” are immoral. That reality will be the demise of the integrity of Earth’s ecosphere and us, since militant nation-state centralization (of “military-industrial” fuel complexes) is based on the competition, speed, armaments and monopoly of explosive physical substances. These are dependent on massive, socialized and unsustainable contamination, much of which is invisible, or otherwise undetectable, to citizens.

  34. Aussie John says:

    This report on an independeant study by Queensland (Australia) Southern Cross University on the Tara gasfield is worrying.

    It has been submitted for peer review -if it’s findings are verified we have much to be concerned about; it would appear we are not receiving accurate information on methane leakage from the fracking industry.

  35. Joe Romm says:

    Not actually what this blog post says.

  36. rebel says:

    High energy prices make transportation expensive and the relative cost of labor goes down. High energy prices make the US more attractive for manufacturing.

  37. Brian Smith says:

    It’s just cheap gas, not alchemy, if we avoid the environmental costs.

    Those responsible will be long gone, with excellent remuneration, before the true costs are understood by everyone.

  38. Dr Juan says:

    Maybe Obama should have promoted the 4 day work week and more work-at-home programs to cut down on driving rather than condemning coal. Get some facts before openning mouth.

  39. Paul Magnus says:

    “we need to start getting off of all fossil fuels.” ASAP.

  40. Frank Zaski says:

    Michigan generated 55 million tons of CO2 from burning coal and 44 million tons of CO2 from burning natural gas in 2011. (EIA)

    Natural gas was used for: residential 42%, commercial 22%, industrial 21% and electricity 15%.

    With methane (natural gas) having 25 times the GHG impact of CO2, a 4% leakage doubles the GHG impact and a 9% leakage would more than triples it. Obviously, there is an even greater impact in the first 20 years.

    This changes many things:

    The fracking fight emphases should now center on preventing GHG and less on ground water pollution.

    And to reduce natural gas usage, the emphasis should be on promoting ENERGY EFFICIENCY and CONSERVATION which also reduces coal usage and saves money. Previously, it seemed renewable energy got most of the attention in the global warming fight. EE is a much easier sell in this congress than RE.

  41. dennis baker says:

    In my opinion

    We need to replace the fossil fuel power plants, the primary source of GHG. Now!

    At a scale required to accomplish this task :

    Ethanol starves people : not a viable option.

    Fracking releases methane : not a viable option.

    Cellulose Bio Fuel Uses Food Land : not a viable option

    Solar uses food land : Not a viable option

    Wind is Intermittent : Not a viable option

    All Human and Agricultural Organic Waste can be converted to hydrogen, through exposure intense radiation!

    The Radioactive Materials exist now, and the Organic waste is renewable daily.

    Ending the practice of dumping sewage into our water sources.

    Air, Water, Food and Energy issues, receive significant positive impacts .

    Reducing illness / health care costs as well !

    Dennis Baker

    Penticton BC V2A1P9

  42. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Quite right! The Bosses are simply gagging for the excuse to unleash the forces of militarised repression against the hated ‘Greenies’ and, in the absence of any convenient excuse, I imagine that some ‘false flag’ provocation is absolutely inevitable, particularly when the situation grows more dire and they begin to fear losing control over society.

  43. David Lewis says:

    There has been a will to believe that using gas will end up being a lot better than coal in the community of people one might think would be more interested in the truth, no matter how disturbing that truth might be, that is, climate hawks.

    But the main issue is how much methane has to leak as a result of using gas, whether it is produced by fracking or by any other method.

    Take a look at page 15 of GAO-11-34, a Government Accountability Office report on methane leaks. A graphic is presented showing the difference between leaks in a basin controlled by BP, and the usual basin in the US controlled by anyone else. The difference is that BP’s CEO, at the time Kyoto was signed, laid down a company policy which was to be seen to be doing something about GHG emissions stemming from company activities, including methane leaking from operations aimed at producing gas for sale. BP made money stopping these leaks, because they can sell methane.

    US oil and gas companies, basically, buy into the idea that looking for more oil and gas is a more profitable place to put their investment dollars than in stopping leaks, i.e. getting the most out of what they’ve discovered already.

    When GAO reported that although US industry operators told it that 0.13% of US gas is leaking, whereas more independent US EPA and US WRAP data showed leakage at rates 30 times higher, the industry response wasn’t to say their BS was accurate and the EPA and WRAP data was BS. Industry did not dispute the GAO assumption that EPA and WRAP were correct. All they did was attempt to minimize how much was lost to the US Treasury as a result. (Leaked gas is not subject to royalties payable to Treasury).

    One thing is, when it comes to assessing Howarth’s work, for those who want to dump on him and dismiss everything he says, they need to keep in mind he didn’t do the studies he got his data from. He reviewed studies that exist.

    His references are worth a look, especially “Direct measurement of fugitive emissions from a refinery”. Funny thing, the authors of this study found, when you show up with sophisticated equipment that can remotely sense the concentration of methane in air anywhere you point it, suddenly you detect emissions of methane far in excess of what anyone was prepared to admit was possible up to that point. Most data on methane leaks is estimated, not measured.

  44. GB says:

    Most crimes are never prosecuted.

  45. oekoman says:

    Let’s hurry up and destroy the planet. That way we can get rid of Washington politicians! After all, the rich own the air, right? So they can do whatever they want with it. Just because the very existence of the human race is at stake is no reason for alarm or for stopping the profitable interests from making their money!

  46. oekoman says:

    It is better to be alive and have no job than to have a job but not be able to work because you are DEAD! What part of this logic are you having trouble understanding? Are you arguing that jobs are more important than life on earth?