Another week, another bombshell study supporting the conclusion that natural gas has no net climate benefit in any timescale that matters to humanity.
This time it’s a Princeton thesis, which finds “Methane emissions from abandoned oil and gas [AOG] wells appear to be a signiﬁcant source of methane emissions to the atmosphere.”
Natural gas is mostly methane, (CH4), a super-potent greenhouse gas, which traps 86 times as much heat as CO2 over a 20-year period. So even small leaks in the natural gas production and delivery system can have a large climate impact — enough to gut the entire benefit of switching from coal-fired power to gas. Study after study, however, finds that the leaks are anything but small.
The research involved “ﬁrst-of-a-kind direct measurements of methane ﬂuxes” from 19 AOG wells in Pennsylvania. Doctoral candidate Mary Kang found methane leaks in every single one of the wells — even the ones that were supposedly plugged — and 3 of them were “super-emitters.”
Why do leaky abandoned wells matter? Because there are so damn many of them:
“With currently available data, we estimate that there are between 280,000 and 970,000 AOG wells in Pennsylvania, which translates to 4 to 13% of total estimated state-wide anthropogenic methane emissions in Pennsylvania.”
And there are hundreds of thousands if not millions more around the country. No doubt this is one more reason a major 2014 Stanford study concluded, “A review of more than 200 earlier studies confirms that U.S. emissions of methane are considerably higher than official estimates.” Emissions are so high that natural gas power plants are unlikely to be better than coal plants from a climate perspective for many decades.
Cornell fracking expert Prof. Anthony Ingraffea — who coauthored a key study warning natural gas leakage was higher than official estimates — told Climate Central that Kang’s study “supports what I and many others have been saying for many years, and that’s this: There is methane leaking from oil and gas wells. Period.”
Finally, you may wonder whether Pennsylvania regulations are doing anything to address this problem. Kang concludes, “Reducing methane emissions from AOG wells does not appear to be a goal in well abandonment regulations.” Oops. That’s one more thing the federal government will need to regulate whenever it gets serious about the leakage problem.