Natural Gas Production Destroys The Climate, Doesn’t Save It

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Editor’s note: By the excellent Joe Romm of Climate Progress, here’s more on why natural gas is not included as cleantech in CleanTechnica’s book, and is even much worse than hyped by the natural gas industry, politicians on both sides of the aisle, and even the EPA:

plankA major new study blows up the whole notion of natural gas as a short-term bridge fuel to a carbon-free economy.

Natural gas is mostly methane (CH4), a potent heat-trapping gas. If, as now seems likely, natural gas production systems leak 2.7% (or more), then gas-fired power loses its near-term advantage over coal and becomes more of a gangplank than a bridge. Worse, without a carbon price, some gas displaces renewable energy, further undercutting any benefit it might have had.

Fifteen scientists from some of the leading institutions in the world — including Harvard, NOAA and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab — have published a seminal study, “Anthropogenic emissions of methane in the United States.” Crucially, it is based on “comprehensive atmospheric methane observations, extensive spatial datasets, and a high-resolution atmospheric transport model,” rather than the industry-provided numbers EPA uses.

Indeed, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study by Scot Miller et al takes the unusual step of explicitly criticizing the EPA:

The US EPA recently decreased its CH4 emission factors for fossil fuel extraction and processing by 25–30% (for 1990–2011), but we find that CH4 data from across North America instead indicate the need for a larger adjustment of the opposite sign.


How much larger? The study found greenhouse gas emissions from “fossil fuel extraction and processing (i.e., oil and/or natural gas) are likely a factor of two or greater than cited in existing studies.” In particular, they concluded, “regional methane emissions due to fossil fuel extraction and processing could be 4.9 ± 2.6 times larger than in EDGAR, the most comprehensive global methane inventory.”

This suggests the methane leakage rate from natural gas production, which EPA recently decreased to about 1.5%, is in fact 3% or higher.

This broad-based look at methane emissions confirms the findings of 3 recent leakage studies covering very different regions of the country:

    • NOAA researchers found in 2012 that natural-gas producers in the Denver area “are losing about 4% of their gas to the atmosphere — not including additional losses in the pipeline and distribution system.”
    • 2013 study by NOAA found leaks from oil and gas exploration and extraction in the L.A. basin representing “about 17% of the natural gas produced in the region, similar to the leak rate estimated by the California Air Resources Board using other methods.” Almost all the gas produced in the basin is “associated” with oil production (rather than, say, fracked). Associated gas is still about a fifth of total U.S. gas production.
    • Another 2013 study from 19 researchers led by NOAA concluded “measurements show that on one February day in the Uinta Basin, the natural gas field leaked 6 to 12 percent of the methane produced, on average, on February days.” The Uinta Basin is of special interest because it “produces about 1 percent of total U.S. natural gas” and fracking has increased there over the past decade.
        The comprehensive nature of this new study strongly suggests these earlier findings were not anomalies, as some have suggested.

Indeed, all of these findings taken together vindicate the concerns of high leakage rates raised by Cornell professors Howarth, Santoro and Ingraffea, which I reported on back in 2011. I asked Ingraffea to comment on the new study. He wrote:

The results presented by Miller and his team are another serious challenge to an “all of the above” energy policy that relies on negotiated estimates of methane emissions, rather than actual and representative emission measurements, while at the same time claiming serious concern about climate change. A growing series of regional, top-down measurements by this team and others, now on a national scale, is proving to be a more rational approach to accounting for the highly skewed distribution of methane emission sources.

He added, “That methane bridge is starting to crack.”

We have seen a number of cracks this year in the methane bridge — bringing it to the point of collapse. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported recently that methane is a far more potent a greenhouse gas than we had previously realized, some 34 times stronger a heat-trapping gas than CO2 over a 100-year time scale — and 86 times more potent over a 20-year time frame.

With methane having both a higher leakage rate and higher global warming potential than previously thought, the notion of methane as a bridge fuel is falling apart.

Yes, it’s true a recent study finds the best-fracked wells have low methane leak rates — but that study ignored the super-emitters that are responsible for the bulk of the fugitive emissions.

And remember, for natural gas to be a bridge fuel to a carbon-free future (rather than a detour around it), gas must replace coal only, rather than replacing some combination of coal, renewables, nuclear power, and energy efficiency — which is obviously what will happen in the real world absent a price on carbon pollution. The most comprehensive modeling to date, by fourteen teams from different organizations, found that abundant and cheap natural gas has little net impact on U.S. CO2 growth (especially post-2020) compared to the case of low shale gas penetration precisely because it displaces carbon-free energy. Globally, the International Energy Agency finds a dash to gas would destroy a livable climate.

gangplankFinally, natural gas makes little sense as a short-term sustainability play, since we know that each fracked well consumes staggering amounts of water, much of which is rendered permanently unfit for human use and reinjected into the ground where it can taint even more ground water in the coming decades. That’s particularly worrisome considering that fossil fuels destroy the climate and accelerate drought and water shortages.

With this most recent study, our understanding of the limitations of natural gas is now fairly complete. Natural gas is not a bridge to a carbon-free or climate-safe future. In fact, absent both a serious price for carbon and very strong, enforceable national regulations on leakage, natural gas is a gangplank.

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57 thoughts on “Natural Gas Production Destroys The Climate, Doesn’t Save It

  • Kindly add that the what you don’t see below the ground contamination and pollution is even worse that the effects to the atmosphere.

  • The one million dollar ERG Ft Worth air study had representatives that reported during the citizen briefing that we have from 2 ½ to 5 times more methane in our ambient air than the average worldwide background. With heat or sunlight, Methane reacts with halogens like chlorine. These chlorinated hydrocarbons are dangerous to our liver, kidneys and central nervous system. The ERG study admitted that they could not address the numerous combinations of reactive mixtures.

    Ft Worth averaged almost 21,000 tons of methane losses per year which was only 20 times less than the total methane losses from the BP Gulf coast disaster. This tells me that we can improve on NOT allowing methane to escape to the atmosphere (which is a potent green house gas). Through self policing, the industry has demonstrated a callous disregard for our minerals by their inaction to employ Best Available Emission Control Technologies. They are short changing our valuable state resources that the Rail Road Commission had a duty to protect and have failed in that job area.

    In 2009 inTexas, 96 percent of the 80,000 violations by oil and gas drillers resulted in NO enforcement action. The Rail Road Commission received 681 complaints that resulted in the discovery of almost 2,000 violations. Again, 96 percent resulted in NO enforcement action.

  • Someone please show me the evidence that explosions are occurring in and near natural gas production fields. Because if this much methane was being released at the point of production, things would be exploding.

    But they are not.

    • Question my friend. Doesn’t methane need to be ignited to explode. So how does your statement make any sense. Is it that at some level of release methane spontaneous combusts?

      • There are all sorts of potential sources of ignition in these areas. Motor vehicles are the most common along with a variety of electrically powered machines.

        • Don’t forget Buba with his American Spirit hanging off his lower lip….

    • Steeple, that is just dumb. Methane needs to reach a certain level in the atmosphere before it will burn even with a burning match. There is a reason why they have their exclusion zones around wells and pipelines, areas where things like phones and lighters and synthetic clothing are banned. All unconventional gas needs to be banned until they can show that they can extract it cleanly. In the mean time coal is actually cleaner.

      • So they need to disprove a negative? No, that would be dumb. Just because someone hurls an accusation at a fuel they dont like because it doesn’t come riding in on a unicorn doesn’t mean it should be banned.

        Exclusion zones? Have you ever been near a gas well head? A pipeline right of way? Vehicles drive right up to them. And anything that leaks can easily pool up to a concentration that can explode if the conditions are calm, which is often enough considering how many gas wells we have here in the US.

        • Steeple,
          You are wrong on so many levels, and your ignorance of basic chemistry and physics is normal except when you try to tell others how they work and interact. I know that many folks online and in person think everybody is shooting from their hip so all they have to do is pretend they know and they can fool others too. The only problem with that is that only your world is based on mixing up politics with science. I know, like the folks who claim the bible tells them so, Faux news told you so. It is disheartening that so many believe sound bites from the disenfranchised, and make fun of education. I will point you in the right direction so you will know what knowledge to avoid so your premises aren’t invalidated by any fact intruding on your pretense to arrogance.
          1. Different gases have different weights. Some like propane are heavier than air and can pool in low spots. Methane however is lighter than air. So much so that it can be used in place of helium or hydrogen were it not combustible. So it rises into the atmosphere and disperses as a pollutant. In production it is estimated about 2% of Methane produced is leaked to the atmosphere.
          2. Combustible gases have lower (LEL) and upper explosive limits (UEL) of gas to air ratios. Methane’s LEL is 5% Methane to air. UEL is 15%. Even holding a lighter to it, ot will not combust, burn or explode unless the methane to fuel mixture is between 5-15% Methane to air. Go to a gas stove or grill. Note that the flames coming out the ends of the burners do not run up the tube carrying the gas. The gas is too rich to burn as it is almost 100% gas to air. Only when mixed with air down to a ratio of 5-15% Methane to air is any combustion possible.

          • So to follow your argument. I guess a gas well will only leak methane, and not the associated ethane or propane wouldn’t leak?

            Honestly, have you ever worked around a gas well? Why don’t you go try and use a source of ignition around a gas well that is leaking 5% of production, or whatever is alleged here, and let me know how that works out.

          • First, why would a loss of 4 or 5% of production, possibly from thousands of separate leaks, necessarily lead to > 5% accumulation in the local atmosphere? No direct connection there.

            Second, here’s the average U.S. natural gas composition at the wellhead:
            methane (density 0.56 x air) = 92.3%
            ethane (1.06 x air) = 3.6%
            propane (1.56, same as CO2) = 0.8%
            butane (2.04 x air) = 0.5%

            So the pooling scenario you mentioned above looks pretty far-fetched, no matter how calm the conditions. And how often does CO2 form pools in open-air conditions? In a dense forest of trees exhaling it, you’d think small valleys would be a serious drowning hazard. Haven’t heard about it so far…

          • Did you say that trees exhale CO2? Really?

          • Yeah, I did – that was a really dumb error. So change it to a city on a calm night, with millions of sources of CO2, together much larger than the quantities of O2 from a forest of trees. Then look up toxic CO2 concentrations. 2-3% can be tolerated for short to medium periods, 7-10% can be fatal. Similar to the ignition range for light hydrocarbons. Nearly all the carbon in all the fuels burned in a city becomes CO2 – yet we don’t seem to have a suffocation problem analogous to your suggested fire hazard from gas leaks.

          • Well, Peter. Let’s keep trying.

            First, methane and associated products of natural gas production can be explosive risks. CO2 is not. That’s kinda a big distinction.

            I wasn’t suggesting that anyone would drown in methane. Not sure how you extrapolated to that.

          • I can’t see anyplace where I suggested a drowning hazard from methane. I said that the drowning hazard of CO2 is in about the same concentration range as for the explosion hazard of methane, ethane, etc.. For a ballpark comparison.
            We agree, do we not, that the CH4 and C2H6 will quickly disperse? That leaves us with 1.3% as C3H10 and C4H12, with, together, slightly higher density than CO2.
            Now consider an industrial city in a valley on a calm winter night with a temperature inversion. _All_ the C (or at least 98%) from all the combusted fuels in the city will become CO2. Yet we never seem to reach the 5-7% range that would start suffocating people.
            Here’s where the analogy comes in: for propane and butane from nat gas leaks to reach the same %age as the CO2 above, in similar conditions, we’d need to leak 75 times the mass, in gas, as all that fuel combined – and we still wouldn’t have an explosion hazard. If leakage is 10%, gas production (in mass, not volume!) would have to be 750x the fuel consumption intensity of that energy-intensive city.
            That’s why I say your pooling scenario doesn’t come close to refuting the cited leakage estimates. Maybe you can find something else that works, but this isn’t it.

          • Peter, it was not dumb error. This is one of the trick questions we ask most of our graduate students to make sure they learn something in biology. All living things, including plants and trees, respire, and when they do, they use oxygen and produce carbon dioxide. Respiration is a necessary process to get energy for growth and to stay alive. Without respiration and metabolism, plants will not grow. Respiration is the opposite of photosynthesis. Respiration burns sugars, by consuming oxygen and producing water and energy. Photosynthesis produces sugar and oxygen by splitting water using sunlight energy while combining with carbon dioxide. The amount of CO2 produced by plants is negligible compared to the amount of CO2 that they trap. Moreover, the CO2 that the plants produce are recycled immediately for photosynthesis. Only in prolonged periods when light intensity cannot trigger photosynthesis and temperature is high enough for metabolism that the plants will truly release CO2 into the atmosphere, and even then, it is very small amount, as plants will often shut down or minimize its respiration and metabolism.

          • Thanks, Marion, you’re too kind.
            I’m not a biologist (my sister is), but I knew enough about plant metabolism to still say… …it was a dumb error! 🙁
            I should have used the “city metabolism” analogy from the start; I think that’s accurate and appropriate for the purpose.

          • Trees can exhale CO2 as do most plants. Every living thing respire, and in the process of respiration,oxygen is consumed and CO2 is released. Most plants trap the CO2 that they expire, especially the CAM (crassulacean acid metabolism) plants, in the form of acids, to be used when sunlight becomes available. Some of the C3 and C4 plants release CO2 after a prolonged period of cloudy skies and the night time temperatures are higher because they can’t buffer it any longer. The amount of CO2 released is not as significant compared the amount of CO2 fixed during photosynthesis and releasing O2 in the process.

          • Steeple is trying to be cute over “exhale”.

          • Steeple,
            You being obtuse or just really that ignorant. First I live and work around and get paid mineral rights from the Haynesville shale gas right under me in the Elm Grove Louisiana area. My son worked managing the instrument’s and flow controls for twenty or thirty gas wells. I am an Industrial engineer.
            The article above, remember that?,was about how methane escapes during Natural gas production, possibly being more of a pollutant than was previously thought. You did read the article above and comprehended at least some of what this topic is about right? That leakage was not at the well but the refinery. You’re either a troll or accustomed to your crazy pronouncements being believed by people. Poor people. I have no intent of trying to screw you in print. I am detaching so you can screw yourself as you need no help with the comments you’re making. Remember the difference between intelligence and stupidity? Intelligence has limits. I have reached mine.

          • Ok, I’m a Chemical Engineer so I know a bit about hydrocarbon leakage risk.

            So rather than continue to bore each other, try this. Go ask the operator of the refinery/processing plant how much leakage he thinks he has. I’ll bet he doesn’t say 5-10%, because he would have a lot of producers and leasehold owners like yourself pretty upset with him.

            Let me know how that goes.

          • RV – Amen to your Faux/bible comparison. Maybe off-topic, but as I’ve put it before:

            “The Bible says it’s the Word of God. Fox News says it’s fair and balanced. Got any questions about the audience overlap?”

            Most of what you say about methane is right, but about the density, not quite. Methane has 56% the density of air, but it’s 4x denser than helium, 8x denser than hydrogen, so it’s not even close to being a substitute in a blimp, or even in a party balloon.

          • Bible? Faux? Is that the best you’ve got?

            Ever worked in a gas field, RV? Oh, youve already ignored that question. It does look like you have experience around a gas grill, so I’ll assume that is your level of expertise for now.

        • Steeple, I live on a gas field, in Australia. I have been on many well sites and pipelines. I have been through inductions to go onto well sites. I filmed these inductions so I can. I was, I believe, the first person in the world to point out that this stuff is dirtier than coal.
          I am very concerned about leaking gas pooling in calm conditions and exploding, or simply asphyxiating me in my sleep.
          The fact is the unconventional gas is dirty and dangerous, but extremely profitable for those who don’t care about the ecosystems and communities that occupy gasfields.
          The gas industry is dishonest, they have always been dishonest because they know that once the truth about this dirty industry is understood then this dirty industry will be shut down forever.
          The vehicles that drive on or near gaswells and pipelines are all diesel with shielded electronics. Mobile phones and cameras are banned on well sites.

          I guess you hope to make money out of this filthy industry.

    • Methane will ignite in air only if it is in the range of 5-15%. I know this from being a coal miner in the past, but anybody can look it up in about one minute. 5% translates to 50,000 ppm. Now look at the map. The highest measured level of 29 ppm is too diluted to ignite – by a factor of 172! That’s why no explosions. For a different perspective, take an average on the 20-year and 100-year reported CH4/CO2 factors, which is 60. Apply that to a lowish local concentration from the map, of 10 ppm. That gives an equivalent of 600 ppm of CO2, 1.5 times the current level in the atmosphere.
      Fortunately the whole planet isn’t covered with these leaky gas lines, or we’d be truly cooked. Bear in mind, though, that countless cities probably look the same way – and that CH4 dissipates quickly with wind, convection, diffusion, and it’s lighter than air. So the graph might represent a few hours or less of emissions. The wide gap between climate relevant and explosive concentrations makes those two completely separate issues.
      Why not do the arithmetic for yourself next time? It only takes a minute, and can help you avoid looking like a fool.

      • ” like a fool”

        Sure is hard to keep oneself from doing a bit of name calling from time to time, isn’t it?

        • Yeah, I thought of that, and should have been more polite. I did say “look like,” though, which is arguably not the same as actually calling somone a fool… Then, naturally, I made a fool of myself with a hasty analogy that I failed to check for the most basic errors before hitting “post.” Glad this isn’t my day job…

        • “like a fool” is a third person method description and not direct name calling.

      • Let’s do some math rather than name call, why don’t we?

        So we are losing 5-10% of production, but the max atmospheric concentration is 29 ppm. So by way of extrapolation, completely releasing all of the gas production to the atmosphere would be a 10-20X increase to 290-580ppm. Well below your threshold to ignite.

        Does that really pass the red face test? Would you stand next to a wide open gas well and start up any source of ignition? This is the point in the class where the professor tells you to go back and start over.

        • Sorry, but you’re the one who needs to go back and start over. The max 29 ppm is a measured concentration at a particular location in a sample city at some arbitrary time. That has no direct connection with CH4 accumulation in the entire atmosphere, and even less to do with opening a gas well head and lighting a match.
          I never said it’s remotely likely to happen, but are you claiming it would be _impossible_ to release all of our gas output to the air w/o causing a fire hazard? What if every pipeline had millions of microscopic holes? Or we could deliberately vent gas into mixing pipes with air and through a flame-arresting screen so that what comes out is at <5%.
          But again, this has nothing to do with making some comparisons between flammable ranges and extremely-dangerous-to-climate ranges, that are orders of magnitude lower. You're the one who said that the emission rates under discussion would create an explosion hazard, and I'm showing why that doesn't follow – by a factor of 100+. To clarify, I'm NOT suggesting that a spot measurement of 29 ppm will lead straight to 10 ppm in the atmosphere. If we do it enough, that will happen, but I couldn't guess how long it would take.
          Actually, it's not so hard to make some decent estimates. 2010 world gas extraction was 3.36T m^3. Let's take that as the CH4 quantity, at 92% of raw gas, and output growth since 2010. The STP-equivalent volume of the atmosphere is 4.2 x 10^18 m^3. If 10% of all gas is leaked or vented, it would take ~25 years to equal the GW potential of all net human CO2 emissions to date. At 5% leakage, it would take 50 years. That would seem to be worth taking seriously.
          Sorry about name-calling – that was rude and uncalled for.

  • Here’s a way to make a lot of $ for those of you who believe this article. Write this letter and offer to split the savings 50/50:

    Mr. R.W. Tillerson
    Chairman of the Board
    ExxonMobil Corporation
    5959 Las Colinas Blvd.
    Irving, TX

    Dear Mr. Tillerson,

    Hello, you don’t know me. But I have an idea to save your company a tremendous amount of lost production which would obviously boost your bottom line income figures. While XOM deservedly has a reputation of being a Best in Class Operator in all areas of its business portfolio, you may not realize that your company is losing a tremendous amount of natural gas into the atmosphere where it cannot be sold for profit.

    You are probably saying to yourself, “Hogwash!”. But wait! Even though this is clearly not happening in your oil, refining or petrochemical businesses, it appears to be happening in your natural gas production. How do I know? Well, some smart guys at NOAA said so. That’s how I know!

    • Since your company produces 4 Billion Cubic Feet per day, and US nat gas prices are $3.50/day (using the simplifying assumption that all of your gas production is in the US), XOM produces approximately $16MM of gas per day. If the NOAA guys are right (of course they must; who knows more about gas production than NOAA!), losing 5-10% of that amount would be worth another $800M to $1.6MM/day! Not beer money, huh Rex?

      So you just tell all of your engineers who are obviously unaware of these losses to get out there, find those leaks and then send a check for the savings to me at (Insert name and address here). I know you can do it.

      Your welcome.

      • “$3.50/day”?


        • Typo $3.50/MMBTU

          MM = Million

          • “$800M to $1.6MM/day!”

            So this means?

          • It implies that XOM is losing $800,000 to $1,600,000 per day in natural gas production losses. Raise your hand if ou believe XOM would let that happen.

          • M = 1,000 and MM = 1,000,000?

            That makes sense how?

          • Standard nomenclature in a lot of engineering. M means 1,000, (like in Roman), MM means 1,000 x 1,000 = 10^6.

          • [Hand pops up] I believe they’d gladly let that happen whenever cost of recovery > value of losses.

            Are you raising your hand to say that aiming for 100.000% efficiency or recovery makes economic sense for any process in any industry?

      • Nothing wrong with your calcs that I can see, but you left out the critical question: is it cheaper to fix the leak or lose the gas? If there are tens of thousands of small leaks in a large system, it’s entirely possible it could be losing several %, and still be cheaper to lose the gas.

        It’s amazingly easy to fool people with this kind of fallacy. Great current example: the project, attracting $MMs in investment to mine platinum from asteroids. After all, they contain many $Bs worth of metal. Not beer money, huh Steeple? I assume you’ll be sending them a check right away.

        Problem is, I did some very conservative cost calcs, and for each $1 worth of platinum, it would cost several hundred to several $k to bring it back. Oops!

        • Well, the argument is that this dirty shale gas production is leading to these leaks. Most of this production is less than 10 years old, while municipal gas lines can be 50 to 100 years old. If the leaks are from the former, which I seriously doubt but is alleged by this article, they are likely economic if theu exist. If the leaks are from the former, they are likely not economic.

          These leaks are alleged to come from existing wells that one can walk up to and touch. The asteroid analogy is not really apples and apples, but it was a nice try.

          • Where is that argument, focused on fracking? Looks to me that it’s fairly comprehensive, as is this: [I see what looks like a typo there – gas should have ~2/3 the carbon of oil, I think, not 1/3.]

            By “economic,” I assume you mean cheaper to fix than to lose the gas. I think we can trust the industry to identify most of those opportunities, so almost by definition, any remaining leaks are “not economic.”

            I see nothing wrong with the asteroid analogy. You claimed it was impossible for there to be so much leakage, by calculating the value of lost gas, and implying that all that value is free for the taking.

            It’s just like no end of gold mining “investment opportunities” on Earth (my dad was a mining geologist, so we saw tons of those). Sure enough, there are places where one can accurately say, “That mountain has $100 million worth of gold in it.” But if it costs > $100M (MM?) to mine and mill it, all that gold might as well be dirt.

  • People should read this piece from the Environmental Defense Fund.

    My take-away is that methane leaks at the well can be largely contained. Not absolutely, 100%, totally contained but pretty well contained.

    Then look at the image at the bottom of this comment. It shows methane (natural gas) leaks from an urban area – leaks from the distribution system that heats our houses and water.

    My take-away from that is that we need to do some serious leak fixing in our methane distribution system.

    These are fixable problems. Require best practices at the wells and plug the distribution leaks.

    • Thanks for the illustrative graphic, Bob! Yes, we should plug those leaks, but it probably doesn’t need to be mentioned that it would cost a few pennies (many $billions nationwide, I’d guess). Obviously the incentives aren’t there; regulations are based on explosion risk, not AGW (see reply to Steeple below); and utilities aren’t motivated to fix leaks unless they’re close to a violation or, less likely, losing enough gas to amount to noticeable $.

      Anecdotally, we had a smellable intermittent gas leak that in time I figured out was worse in cold weather. Took a while to get the utility to deal with it, and it was a stiff rubber seal in a 20-year-old meter – that they replaced. There must be leaks like that out there by the millions.

      • I assume our desire to minimize climate change will increase as we get hurt more and more often by what we’re creating.

        At some point the EPA will probably tell the utilities to fix the leaks.

        I can see citizen monitoring using drones playing a role as time goes along.

  • Yes, the Natural Gas (methane H4C) production produce emissions, but is less that NG emissions from natural rain forest, the worst NG emissions comes from land fills.
    Now for NG production by fracking is a new technology which doesn’t use more water and that is magnetic low frequency technology.

    • It doesn’t matter if it is less than a natural source. It adds to the imbalance we’ve created.

Comments are closed.