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Study: Methane Leakage From Gas Fields Guts Climate Benefit

Joseph Romm's picture
, American Progress
  • Member since 2018
  • 1,651 items added with 357,571 views
  • Aug 9, 2013
Satellite view of gas wells dotting Utah's Uintah Basin in Utah (via CIRES).

Satellite view of gas wells dotting Utah’s Uinta Basin (via CIRES).

Natural gas is “a bridge to a world with high CO2 Levels,” climatologist Ken Caldeira told me last year.

A major new study in Geophysical Research Letters by 19 researchers — primarily from NOAA and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) — suggests natural gas may be more of gangplank than a bridge.

Scientists used a research aircraft to measure leakage and found:

The measurements show that on one February day in the Uintah Basin, the natural gas field leaked 6 to 12 percent of the methane produced, on average, on February days.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) called the emissions rates “alarmingly high.” While the researchers conducted 12 flights, “they selected just one as their data source for this paper,” ClimateWire reports. Researchers actually measured higher emissions on other flights, but atmospheric conditions during those flights “gave the data more uncertainty.”

The Uinta Basin is of particular interest because it “produces about 1 percent of total U.S. natural gas” and fracking has increased there over the past decade.

This study confirms earlier findings of high rates of methane leakage from natural gas fields. If these findings continue to be replicated elsewhere, they would utterly vitiate the direct climate benefit of natural gas, even when it is used only to switch off coal.

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 80 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.

Still, 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%. 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 the journal 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. EDF is working with the industry to develop credible leakage numbers in a variety of locations.

Right now, fracking is looking more and more like a bridge to nowhere aka a gangplank.

The post Bridge Or Gangplank? Study Finds Methane Leakage From Gas Fields High Enough To Gut Climate Benefit appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Edward Kerr's picture
Edward Kerr on Aug 10, 2013

Great post Joe:

Every time I make the claim that we MUST abandon carbon based fuels ASAP I get comments explaining why we can’t. Of course, though the comments only point out the industry claims as to why we can’t do away with their income stream, they are wrong. We can and must focus all of our efforts to making the transition happen (it’s in it’s nacient state) or we will certainly perish as a species and take most other species with us.

Methane is the real core of the problem. Not just that vented from fracking but the massive amounts venting from the arctic permafrost and ocean hydrates. What people seem to not be able to grasp is that warming will become non-linear and uncontrollable. Even now we have upset the climate (regardless of any denialist claims) and that promises to escalate.

If wanting to see humanity continure to live and develop is an “agenda” then I stand guilty of being agenda driven before the world.

Edward Kerr

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Aug 11, 2013


Does this mean that you may be reconsidering your former position that ultra low emission nuclear fission technology is inferior to natural gas because it is too expensive?

i hope we can both agree that fission is not a gangplank if we can address the cost and schedule issues.

In my opinion, the best course of action for people who like both modern society and atmospheric stability is to work together to reduce the excessive burdens that we have imposed on nuclear energy development. That does NOT mean eliminating useful safety regulations, but it does mean taking a hard look at some of the special obstacles that just add cost without improving safety or performance.

Rod Adams, Publisher, Atomic Insights

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Aug 11, 2013

There MUST be a kind of Manhatten or Apollo project on solar powered carbon sequestration, artificial photosynthesis and molecular engineering.

The science for a real and workable SOLUTION to climate change is already framed.

Nicholas Thompson's picture
Nicholas Thompson on Aug 11, 2013

Coal is bad.  Natural gas is bad.  I think mostly everyone who trusts science believes that we have to stop burning fossil fuels.  We still need baseload power though.  Here are your reasons why nuclear is “self-limiting“:
-Prohibitively high, and escalating capital costs
-Production bottlenecks in key components needed to build plants
-Very long construction times
-Concerns about uranium supplies and inportation issues
-Unresolved problems with the availability and security of waste storage
-Large-scale water use amid shortages
-High electricity prices from new plants

All of these problems can be solved (or don’t exist).  
-Small modular reactors are being designed now that will be built in factories in more of an assembly line fashion.  So there goes production bottlenecks.  
-Building more identical reactors reduces first of a kind costs.  So capital costs will decrease, not escalate. 
-Construction times will also be shorter as major components do not have to be built/assembled on site.
-There is plenty of uranium.  US reactors also may start using MOX fuel soon.  Fast reactors can breed fuel.  Even LWRs can breed fuel if designed to (Shippingport was an LWR…).
-The current Nuclear Waste Administration Act would address many issues about waste management.  Even without this, used fuel is being safely stored and managed at reactor sites 
-Nuclear does use water, but so do coal plants and combined cycle gas plants. Trading a coal plant for a nuclear plant would not increase water consumption.
-Electricity prices for existing nuclear plants are the lowest of any source of energy.  New nuclear power plants will have to pay off the initial investment over a long period of time, but they will also operate for a long period of time.  Plants built now may operate for 80 years, so money spent now is an investment ensuring cheap electricity in the future. 

All the issues with nuclear you mention are cost related or technical problems that can be and are being solved.  So keep bashing coal and natural gas all you want, as they are the problems.  But as for solutions, we need to look at nuclear. 

Scott Shugarts's picture
Scott Shugarts on Aug 12, 2013

While I wouldn’t call this study useless, as presented it may find itself being quite misleading.  One day’s worth of readings hardly constitutes more than anecdotal evidence.  I’d agree that atmospheric methane levels are going to be higher over drilling fields.  Much more helpful would be a long-term trend analysis of said methane leves. And, I’d be MUCH more interested to know:

Whether this is a gas or oil field?

How much gas/oil is being extracted?

How old are the wells?

Which drilling techniques are being used?

Has this been replicated in areas with different geological and atmospheric conditions?  How do the different studies compare?


As presented here, the report (and this synonpsis) seems geared more toward ginning up some clamor over drilling than it is to disseminating good analytical information.

Pieter Siegers's picture
Pieter Siegers on Aug 12, 2013

There’s only one solution to this problem and that is leave the fossil fuels in the ground and concentrate on getting renewables deliver the energy we requiere. To accelerate the so needed change, add a global energy tax weighed by pollution factor.

Robert Emery's picture
Robert Emery on Aug 15, 2013

So what else is new to those with limited information?  The world population is 7 billion, the last billion boarded between 1999 and 2011.  By 2023 world population would have increased 33% over 1999. The world average carbon footprint is 4 tones/yr (20 tons/yr US).  One cannot construct enough RE plants to offset GHG from population growth let alone other sources.

Gary Tulie's picture
Gary Tulie on Aug 16, 2013

There are two major factors making emissions from fracked gas substantially higher than the direct emissions of using the gas. 

1. Fracking is an energy intensive process requiring a substantial expenditure of energy to extract the gas.

I do not have figures but if 20% of the gas energy were required to extract the gas, then you would have to multiply the gas emissions by 1.25.

2. Fugative gas emitted to the atmosphere – with 5% methane emissions and assuming 75 times CO2 effect over 20 years (middle of the range in the article) you have a factor of 1 + (0.05 x 75 x 16 /40) = 2.5

(1 = standard emissions, 0.05 = gas loss, 75 = emission factor, 16/40 = the molecular weight ratio of methane gas v CO2)

Multiply the two together, and you get an emission equivalence of  3.125 times the emission of methane combustion over 20 years. 

Noone yet has mentioned energy efficiency as a factor capable of reducing emission intensity – there is substantial scope for improved energy efficiency in lighting, electrical appliances, vehicles, heating and industrial processes. Provided that any cost saving arising does not get absorbed in increased consumption elsewhere, this could play a large part in cutting emissions.

Pieter Siegers's picture
Pieter Siegers on Aug 16, 2013

There are more factors of course, for example, gas leakage intrinsic to the installations and pipelines and other transport. Another one is that the amount of appliances ever increase and well it is to be seen if efficiency can really lower total emissions. I very much doubt it. Anyways that factor could well be a bit higher, which is really really bad news.

So if the factor you calculated is more or less correct we do have an inmense problem. Once again the fossil fuel industry is making a big mess into an increasingly worse one. We have to stop this insanity.

There is only one solution to this all and that is to leave the stuff in the ground. We need to focus on renewables and efficient energy storage options. We need a global energy tax that is weighed by pollution factor (all energy sources pollute in some way but fossil fuel like oil and coal and especially tar sands and fracking are among the worst).

To me, fracking (and yes any other fossil fuel extraction) to our planet is like what is cancer to humanity.


Pieter Siegers's picture
Pieter Siegers on Aug 16, 2013

Of course we need baseload power but that already is in place.

Using solar and wind combined with efficient energy storage and a global energy tax should be the one focus. Then if these increase – and they will – baseload will be fed by renewables and NOT fossil fuels.

Nothing else is needed and creates only but big problems on the long run, up to the point that there may not be a way back for a long time to come. And if that is the case, humanity won’t have a chance to control that situation.


Robert Cormia's picture
Robert Cormia on Aug 16, 2013

I use a different set of numbers to calculate atmospheric ppb methane (5 gigatons = 1750 ppb atmospheric) and don’t get quite the same ‘dire’ results from seepage (5% of 25 quads US), but ppb levels do start creeping up. You need to vent at least a gigaton of methane to move atmospheric methane by 350 ppb mixed, and some of that venting gets combusted early on, especially in sea water. That said, other posts correctly point to the hundreds and thousands of gigatons of trapped methane in permafrost and methane hydrates (soil/sea) which is a MUCH bigger problem mid century if temperatures rise a degree Celsius or more from current/projected. And the post about population (and I=PAT) correctly states (with others) that only a no-carbon (not low carbon) future gets us there. All in all a lively discussion, and no matter what, accurate/extensive methane monitoring is needed in both mining (fracking) and environmental (arctic) settings. With isotopic analysis you can be a little surer about the sources, but not completely.

Gary Tulie's picture
Gary Tulie on Aug 17, 2013

Whilst the drilling related leakage i.e. in the immediate vacinity of the drilling can possibly be tackled by improved technology, I would be surprised if the part of the leakage related to discharge from fracked rocks directly into the aquefer can be dealt with in similar fashion.

The only way to stop this would be to make sure that there is an impervious layer above the fracked rock which will not suffer fracturing in the process – a limitation which is likely to disqualify a large number of potential fracking sites.

dennis baker's picture
dennis baker on Aug 19, 2013

The Big Picture – Overview | Green Economy Coalition  


The Idea is redirecting sewage (human) and manure (agricultural) organic waste , to facilities that convert the waste into hydrogen, of sufficient quantities to replace fossil fuel powered electrical generating facilities.

Its redundant to reiterate the facts to you learned people with the dangers associated with these wastes , and the great efforts made to address these waste streams throughout history, you all know this stuff, and recognise termination is a solution to these issues.

Exposure to intense radiation is required to convert the excrement to hydrogen, and sufficient quantities of suitable Nuclear Waste exists right now.

Its redundant to reiterate the facts to you learned people with the dangers associated with these wastes , and the great efforts made to address these waste streams throughout history, you all know this stuff.

A productive use of both these waste streams , replacing the primary source of Co2 emissions, accused inducer of climate change, is a win / win situation for us all.

We are going to reach 10 Billion soon enough, and Human Organic Waste will power all industrial and municipal electrical requirements, after conversion to hydrogen.

Underemployment issues could be addressed as the infrastructure modifications to accommodate 10 Billion , will be extensive.

One solution addressed is youth unrest , we are all connected by a genetically encoded desire to part of the team, participating in good fight for the survival of the species. This is a good fight. Active participation is welcomed and needed from youth to accomplish this energy evolution.

The best minds on the planet are welcome and needed to finance, engineer, design and operate these new facilities, with resilience to face the climate changes ahead uninterrupted.

The big picture ” were it for the long term “.

Dennis Baker

Gary Tulie's picture
Gary Tulie on Aug 19, 2013

Much as I applaud the idea of sustainably obtaining useful energy from waste streams such as sewage and animal manure, I would have to say that we and our animals simply do not produce enough S**t to achieve the desired result – even if it were technically and economically possible to meet all of our energy needs in this way. 

That said, a combination of such waste materials, food waste, agricultural and forestry residues can offer a substantial contribution to sustainably meeting our energy needs – especially when combined with comprehensive energy efficiency measures.

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on Aug 23, 2013

But Robert, that footpring is based on using today’s energy sources.  If that new population is built on renewable energy the only challenge is convincing the existing population to wake up.

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on Aug 23, 2013

Uinta Basin holds both oil and gas but the recent boom has been gas via fracking.

Do you suggest we ignore these findings?

It is safe to assume they are using standard practices, so the only question is whether the basin’s geology is unusual and is causing this problem.  I suspect not and that these problems are endemic and gives a solid basis to NG being a bridge to nowhere.

Joseph Romm's picture
Thank Joseph for the Post!
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