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Methane Leaks Wipe Out Any Climate Benefit Of Fracking, Satellite Observations Confirm

Joseph Romm's picture
American Progress
  • Member since 2018
  • 1,651 items added with 350,048 views
  • Oct 25, 2014
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Satellite observations of huge oil and gas basins in East Texas and North Dakota confirm staggering 9 and 10 percent leakage rates of heat-trapping methane. “In conclusion,” researchers write, “at the current methane loss rates, a net climate benefit on all time frames owing to tapping unconventional resources in the analyzed tight formations is unlikely.”

In short, fracking speeds up human-caused climate change, thanks to methane leaks alone. Remember, 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.

Back in February, we reported that the climate will likely be ruined already well past most of our lifespans by the time natural gas has a net climate benefit. That was based on a study in Science called “Methane Leaks from North American Natural Gas Systems” reviewing more than 200 earlier studies. It concluded that natural gas leakage rates were about 5.4 percent.

The new study used satellites to look at actual “methane emissions for two of the fastest growing production regions in the United States, the Bakken and Eagle Ford formations,” between the periods 2006–2008 and 2009–2011. They found leakages rates of 10.1 percent and 9.1 percent respectively!

Recall the key figure from the 2012 study, Alvarez et al:


Figure: Maximum life-cycle natural gas leak rate as a function of the number of years needed to achieve net climate benefits after switching from coal power to natural gas. The three curves represent: single emissions pulses (dotted lines); the service life of a power plant, 50 years (dashed lines); and a permanent fleet conversion (solid lines).

If the leakage rate were 5.4 percent, replacing a fleet of coal plants with gas plants would be worse for the climate for 5 decades. If the leakage rate were 7.6 percent, fracked gas is worse for a century!

But it’s even worse than that for fracking. Alvarez et al. used old figures for the global warming potential (GWP) of methane. Last year, the IPCC determined that the 100-year GWP of methane is 40 percent higher than previously estimated.

And it’s even worse than that for fracked gas, which, in the real world, doesn’t just displace coal, it also displaces nuclear power, renewable energy, and energy efficiency. Recent studies have confirmed that — even if methane leakage were zero percent — “increased natural gas use for electricity will not substantially reduce US GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions, and by delaying deployment of renewable energy technologies, may actually exacerbate the climate change problem in the long term.”

Bottom line: fracking speeds up global warming and has no net climate benefit whatsoever in any timescale that matters to humanity. Perhaps it is time to stop squandering tens of billions of dollars on it while rendering billions of gallons of water unfit for human consumption.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Oct 25, 2014

Easy now Mr. Romm, we know how much you despise nuclear power, but if you extend that disdain to shale natural gas you should know that your prefered Wind and Solar power will become even more unworkable.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Oct 25, 2014

I have been tracking these supposedly accurate measurement activities for methane leakage over the past few years and find the claims overwhelmingly exaggerated due to a number of obvious factors.  In the case of the claimed leakage rate of 9-10% (of total production), the total absence of the fact that natural gas flammability/explosive limits are 4.5%-15% (LEL-UEL), and the obvious absence of routine Media reported production well/facility fires or explosions (due to non-accident activities) indicates a leakage rate in the 5-10% range has a very small probability of being reasonably accurate.  In the case of this post, it does not include any references or links to directly support the 9-10% emission claim.

Yes, some small natural gas leakage does occur in all facilities’ valves and compressor seals, but at levels on the order of a 100 ppm’s, not multiple %.  Accurately measuring leakage rates should be done with instruments/samples taken within inches of the source as is done in most States and required by numerous fugitive emissions regulations/controls around the Country.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Oct 25, 2014

He admitted that shale gas displaces emissions-free power of all kinds, including nuclear.  That’s progress.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Oct 25, 2014

Mr. Romm deserves every bit of rubbing it in he can get.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 26, 2014

John, it’s reasonable to assume that leaks from properly maintained valves and seals are on the order of PPMs. Leaks from these sources, however, are insignificant compared to leaks which are the result of drilling itself, which (as you know) is an inexact and results-based process. From an April National Academy of Sciences study:

Drilling operations at several natural gas wells in southwestern Pennsylvania released methane into the atmosphere at rates that were 100 to 1,000 times greater than federal regulators had estimated, new research shows…

The researchers determined that the wells leaking the most methane were in the drilling phase, a period that has not been known for high emissions. Experts had thought that methane was more likely to be released during subsequent phases of production, including hydraulic fracturing, well completion or transport through pipelines.

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on Oct 26, 2014

Hmm, John.  Lets take a look at what the artical states.  9-10% leakage rates.  Since when does that equate to atmospheric concentrations, which is what is necessary for combustion or expolsion?  Considering this is outside, the atmosphere is a dynamic system and methane is less dense therefor difuses quickly I would be surprised if the maximum atmospheric concentration in the vicinity ever reached 1%.  Agree that instruments on the ground are more accurate but the eyes in the sky can give a good overview and tell us where to look.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 26, 2014

@Mike, I suppose it depends on whether you look at the glass as two-thirds full or one-third empty, but the results are hardly “meaningless”. The authors acknowledge

Further studies are needed to provide tighter constraints on fugitive emissions and to investigate to what extent the high leakage rates obtained in this and other recent studies are representative for the entire North American oil and gas producing sector. Accurate evaluation of the impact and sustainability of unconventional oil and gas production across the globe is essential for the development of wise environmental and energy policy.

Exact sourcing is sketchy using satellite techniques; what’s not dispute is the technology’s usefulness in precisely measuring atmospheric methane:

The space-borne spectrometer SCIAMACHY on board ENVISAT now enables first precise measurements of atmospheric methane from space with high sensitivity including toward the ground and global coverage over continents.

There’s a much higher and statistically-significant probability that the measurements of atmospheric methane are accurate, and that they’re due to anthropogenic sources. That they’re at least in part due to gas wells in the drilling phase is confirmed by aircraft overflight measurements tracing some methane plumes to individual wells.

It’s not surprising that the petroleum industry is attempting to cast doubt on these findings. But what’s indisputable is that mining fossil fuels of any stripe releases methane into the atmosphere; it’s likely that these emissions are significant; and that it will be next to impossible to precisely quantify harmful emissions and hold perpetrators accountable. Even if the evidence is less than overwhelming that fossil fuel extraction will result in catastrophic changes to the environment, the precautionary principle dictates we need to move aggressively to discourage their use and find alternatives.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Oct 26, 2014

If Romm has a “Monbiot moment”, it’s all good and I’ll welcome him to the side of reason over romanticism.

James Thurer's picture
James Thurer on Oct 26, 2014

Sorry, duplicate post.

James Thurer's picture
James Thurer on Oct 26, 2014

The average estimated ultimate reserves for a Marcellus well is 6.2 billion cubic feet (bcf) (, and the average time to drill a Marcellus well is about 45 days (  Assuming the average leakage rate during drilling of 34 grams of methane per second cited by Bob Meinetz , this works out to an average leakage rate of about 0.11%.

This number may be higher than previously supposed, but has nothing to do with the 9% – 10% range claimed by the author.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 26, 2014

James, total yield of 6.2 bcf/well is a wildly inflated industry figure, about 5x higher than USGS estimates:

In 2009, Chesapeake was telling investors that its average Marcellus well would produce 4.2 billion cubic feet of gas equivalent (bcfe) of natural gas over its lifetime.  By 2010, it had hiked its estimate to 5.2 bcfe per well.

But according to a new USGS report, the industry-wide average for wells drilled in the interior Marcellus region (the best performing area) in 2011 will actually be 1.2 billion cubic feet – roughly one fifth of the amount that Chesapeake has told investors and the public its wells in the region can produce.

Deepening Doubts About Fracked Shale Gas Wells’ Long Term Prospects

Secondly, the NAS study only calculates emissions for the periods 2008-2009 and 2010-2011, and is estimating the proportion of fugitive emissions to the wells’ output during those time periods only.

On the basis of a mass-balance approach, we estimate that methane emissions for two of the fastest growing production regions in the United States, the Bakken and Eagle Ford formations, have increased by 990 ± 650 ktCH4 yr−1 and 530 ± 330 ktCH4 yr−1 between the periods 2006–2008 and 2009–2011. Relative to the respective increases in oil and gas production, these emission estimates correspond to leakages of 10.1% ± 7.3% and 9.1% ± 6.2% in terms of energy content.

It would be more useful to know what the proportion of leakage to the wells’ total output would be, as you’ve calculated, but it’s hard to get any kind of accurate data from industry sources either on yield or emissions.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Oct 26, 2014

Max, the risk is at the leakage source.  The 100% natural gas (80-90% methane) is diluted in air adjacent the source or leak, and must pass through the explosive range adjacent the leak, which creates a very significant risk of ignition.  The lack of reported fires and explosions makes the 5-10% leakage claim highly questionable due to the large number of potential ignition sources (static or live electric arc, ICE exhaust/backfire, welding, dropped metal tool spark, etc.).  The 5-10% fugitive emissions claims imply than thousands of cubic feet of NG are leaking each day at each well. Highly unlikely due to the lack of fire/explosive incidents.

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on Oct 27, 2014

You think they allow sources of ignition in the immediate neighbourhood?  And assuming it’s a single source leak rather than multisource slow leaks is a bit presumptuous.  I stand by my 1st comment.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Oct 27, 2014

No, their safety procedures don’t allow ignition sources near known/potential leaks or explosive hazards.  What’s presumptuous is claiming or misleading the Public that up 10% of all shale gas production is being leaked or up to one trillion cubic feet per year.   

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 27, 2014

Actually Roger, the mean yield of the most productive field in the country – Haynesville – is about half of what you’re expecting, and 1/3 of what the aggressive marketing people at Chesapeake Energy are promising. If you’re extremely lucky, I suggest you invest your life savings in Marcellus Shale gas plays.

If not, I suggest you read this first.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Oct 27, 2014

Anyone who has been active at TEC for any reasonable stretch will bear witness to Mr. Romm’s Hit and Run posting character. He happily dumps his Greenie Views here but as I recall he has never deigned to reply or engage with comments to his posts.

I suppose there is some value to replying to his views, if only to debunk them for the record.


Kevon Martis's picture
Kevon Martis on Oct 27, 2014

Certainly true: “Energy generation from renewable sources like wind and solar have zero 

emissions and very low variable cost of generation. However, if flexible 

generation assets, such as gas turbines, are not available, these renewable 

technologies will not be deployed. In other words, gas turbines are an essential 

component of renewable energy sources’ ability to penetrate the market.”

Perversely, pairing wind with CT actually yields more CO2 emissions than CCGT alone.



James Thurer's picture
James Thurer on Oct 27, 2014

I honestly don’t know what to say about the USGS study, as I don’t fully understand their methodology.  While I am wary about the EUR of 1.2 bcf per well, using this value yields the result that leakage during drilling would be equivalent to about 0.5% of the volume of gas produced.

If your claim that the other sources of leakage are insignificant compared to leakage during drilling is true, then please explain how the total leakage can even approach the value of 9% to 10%.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 27, 2014

James, after I posted I noticed the USGS data was 13 years old. While it’s unlikely fracking efficiency has improved by a factor of five, it’s no doubt made progress since then.

I don’t know how the leakage can approach a value of 9-10%, but that’s roughly how much methane we have mysteriously concentrated in the area of these wells. How do you think it got there? Are you prepared to conclusively refute the satellite data or the methodology of the researchers?

A more cooperative approach on the part of oil companies to actively address these concerns would help. To their credit, Anadarko Petroleum is acknowledging there is a problem, and supporting legislation in Colorado to require installation of monitoring equipment. Chevron is fighting it tooth and nail, which in a world connected by the free flow of information seems like a pretty stupid move. We will see.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Oct 27, 2014

Bob, some additional relevant information is the fact that during shale well drilling the amount of natural gas encountered is initially very insignificant and is generally limited to the natural gas in the boring shale shaft only.  It’s not until after the drilling of the shale well is complete, including installing the well liner to protect the water table, and the conditioning of the well begins (i.e. injection of hydraulic fracturing liquids) that natural gas production begins to increase significantly and eventually towards maximum production levels for a give well.  During this phase of the production operation the state-of-art pipe, valves, and equipment seals are put in place to minimize leakage and comply with permit/governing regulations.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 28, 2014

Kevon, what’s your source for

pairing wind with CT actually yields more CO2 emissions than CCGT alone.


James Thurer's picture
James Thurer on Oct 28, 2014

The USGS EUR per well of 1.2 bcf did not grossly understate the actual EUR per well of 6.4 bcf simply because of technological improvements over the last 13 years, although that certainly is a significant factor.  Rather, the USGS EUR was based on speculation made at a time when there was no reliable production history, and the estimate is of no more import today than was the estimate by Columbus of the diameter of the Earth when he landed in Hispanola and thought that he was in India.  We do not now assert that the diameter of the Earth has doubled since the time of Columbus.  Rather, we simply say that Columbus was wrong.  Simiarly, the USGS estimate was speculation, was not based on real production data, and has been proved to be dead wrong.  Get over it.

As to the origins of the anomalous increase in methane levels in the Bakken and Eagle Ford areas, Mike Ferguson made some very good points in his comment on this post, and I will reiterate them here briefly.  Firstly, the margin of error in the measurements is extremely large, and the actual magnitude of the anomaly may very well be much lower than the 9% – 10% reported in the post.  The post by Mr. Romm made no mention of the high degree of uncertainty, as is typical of his writing.

Much more significantly, as Mr. Ferguson points out, the study focused on oil plays, not gas plays.  As the referenced study states, the enhancement patterns in the Haynesville shale gas play are “less clear.”  That’s an evasive way of saying that there is no demonstrable methane anomaly associated with shale gas production from the Haynesville.

The authors of the study suggest that the presence of the methane anomaly over oil plays and not gas plays is due to producers in the oil plays being less diligent about controlling leakage.  I strongly doubt this, as this would be a very dangerous practice, and no ground measurements have demonstrated such leakages in oil plays, as far as I know.

Rather, I strongly suspect that the cause of the methane anomaly over the oil plays studied, whatever its magnitude, is the common practice of flaring in oil plays.  Flaring is common in relatively remote oil plays, as the cost of installing the infrastructure to transport and market the gas exceeds the market value of the gas.  Flaring certainly releases significant amounts of methane into the atmosphere, as combustion is never 100% efficient.

This could be easily remedied by phasing in a ban on flaring, requiring the producers to either to reinject the gas, or to develop the infrastructure to transport it to market.  Many countries have banned flaring, and I have been bemused for years to see that it is still allowed in the U.S.

That is what is so unfortunate about the (typically) misleading presentation of the topic by Mr. Romm.  The discussion could have been used to identify and highlight means by which to enhance environmental practice while optimizing production operations while continuing to establish energy security both nationally and globally.  Instead, and not surprisingly, Mr. Romm chose to produce a highly sensational and misleading post.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 28, 2014

James, you might be able to come up with a less puerile and defensive response if you had actually read the USGS report, instead of relying on figures cited in sales brochures as “proof”.

Since 2000, the U.S. Geological Survey has completed assessments of continuous(unconventional) resources in the United States based on geologic studies and analysis of well-production data. This publication uses those 132 continuous oil and gas assessments to show the variability of well productivity within and among the 132 areas. The production from the most productive wells in an area commonly is more than 100 times larger than that from the poorest productive wells. The 132 assessment units were classified into four categories: shale gas, coalbed gas, tight gas, and continuous oil. For each category, the mean well productivity in the most productive assessment units is considerably greater than that of the least productive assessment units.

Get over it yourself.

Far be it from me to defend Joe Romm’s sensationalism, which I agree detracts from his message. But though the magnitude of the anomaly could indeed be much lower, it could also be much higher. Possibly making oil companies pay to figure out what’s going on will decrease their bemusement, and increase their interest in getting to the source of the problem.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Oct 28, 2014


I live in the heart of the Marcellus shale play. Seeing all the work they do on these wells, I find it hard to believe they would waste 10% or so. But the Marcellus play has the good fortune of a pre-existing pipeline network to start from.

Also, we have no reasonable choice here but to burn natural gas for home heating. If the gas came from overseas in the form of LNG imports, what leakage would that have? And I would much rather see the gas produced locally than imported.

Maybe someday we can use use nuclear of some form and biomass to produce the methane and use the infrastructure.

Gary Tulie's picture
Gary Tulie on Oct 30, 2014

Three things I would say. 

1. It seems possible – even likely that the fracking process would on occasion result in cracks in the rock strata capable of releasing methane into the water table and subsequently into the atmosphere. This would seem to be occuring in some places near fracking sites where borehole water has been shown to contain sufficient methane to be flamable.

2. Most fracking wells have a relatively short production life, however it is entirely possible that as with coal mines, methane may continue to leak long after the well stops producing.

3. Fracking requires considerable amounts of both energy and water – the energy consumption increases the CO2 emissions associated with gas use, whilst excessive water use can reduce the biological carbon sinks (plant growth) particularly in arid and semi-arid regions

James Thurer's picture
James Thurer on Oct 31, 2014

Considering your points:

1)  The producing interval of the Bakken Shale occurs at a depth of 4,500 – 7,500 feet, and is about 22 feet thick.  There’s no way that the fracking a thin interval at that depth that would produce cracks that would extend that far up.  As to the flammable borehole water, please clarify what areas your thinking of.  If you’re thinking of the iconic burning tap water from the movie “Gasland,” you need to be aware that the gas that burned was analyzed and determined biogenic gas, similar to the gas produced by manure or rotting vegetable matter, and has nothing to do with commercial production of thermogenic gas from deep geologic reservoirs, let alone with fracking.  This was determined by the authorities in Colorado two years before the movie was made, if I recall correctly.  In fact, there are many places where it’s difficult to drill a water well without encountering gas, either from biogenic process, or from natural leakage from deeper geologic reservoirs.

2)  Unlike coal mines, abandoned oil and gas wells are filled with cement and sealed when they are abandoned, as required by law and supervised by state agencies.

3)  If it is true that the reported methane anomaly is related to local water and energy consumption, please explain why a similar anomaly has not been noted over the Haynesville Shale area.

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