US Natural Gas System Leaks Far More Methane Than Previously Thought, Research Finds

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The US natural gas system leaks far more methane than had been estimated previously, according to a new report that synthesizes the results of more than 200 different studies across a number of different fields of research.

This work comprises the first thorough comparison of evidence on natural gas system leaks in the US, and shows, unequivocally, that major organizations (such as the EPA) have greatly underestimated total US methane emissions.

natural gas production leaks

Given the great effect that methane has on the climate (30 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas), the findings are certainly notable — to put it lightly….

“People who go out and actually measure methane pretty consistently find more emissions than we expect,” stated the lead author of the new analysis, Adam Brandt, an assistant professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford University. “Atmospheric tests covering the entire country indicate emissions around 50% more than EPA estimates. And that’s a moderate estimate.”

The press release provides more:

The new analysis, which is authored by researchers from seven universities, several national laboratories and federal government bodies, and other organizations, found these atmospheric studies covering very large areas consistently indicate total US methane emissions of about 25% to 75% higher than the EPA estimate.

Some of the difference is accounted for by the EPA’s focus on emissions caused by human activity. The EPA excludes natural methane sources like geologic seeps and wetlands, which atmospheric samples unavoidably include. The EPA likewise does not include some emissions caused by human activity, such as abandoned oil and gas wells, because the amounts of associated methane are unknown.

However, the analysis also finds that some recent studies showing very high methane emissions in regions with considerable natural gas infrastructure are not representative of the entire gas system.

“If these studies were representative of even 25% of the natural gas industry, then that would account for almost all the excess methane noted in continental-scale studies,” explained researcher Eric Kort, an atmospheric science professor at the University of Michigan. “Observations have shown this to be unlikely.”

Overall, the analysis makes it clear that the natural gas industry would really have to clean itself up a great deal (with regard to leaks) in order to deliver on its promise of being a “greener” alternative to coal and/or oil.

“Reducing easily avoidable methane leaks from the natural gas system is important for domestic energy security,” stated Robert Harriss, a methane researcher at the Environmental Defense Fund and a co-author of the analysis. “As Americans, none of us should be content to stand idly by and let this important resource be wasted through fugitive emissions and unnecessary venting.”

Speaking on the topic of why the gas industry has underestimated the emission rates for its wells and processing plants, researcher Garvin Heath, a senior scientist with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, stated: “Self-selection bias may be contributing to why inventories suggest emission levels that are systematically lower than what we sense in the atmosphere.”

No surprise there. On that note, the analysis mentions a study where the EPA asked 30 gas companies to cooperate and allow site access to researchers — only six of the 30 companies that were asked ended up allowing the EPA on site.

The new findings were just published in the journal Science.

Image: Natural gas production facility via Shuttersock

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

James Ayre has 4830 posts and counting. See all posts by James Ayre

16 thoughts on “US Natural Gas System Leaks Far More Methane Than Previously Thought, Research Finds

  • It would be interesting to follow up this study with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and University of Texas Austin (UTA) study on fugitive emissions that is ongoing. Or is this study and the UTA study one in the same? Air emissions studies and the practice of fugitive emissions monitoring should be fairly straight forward if everyone is on the same page and all parties participate. It is 2014 not 1978. I’m getting whiplash from reading studies and analysis and re-studies and counter analyses. Not every environmental monitoring program needs to be turned into a Master of Science thesis.

  • I know of one careful study of wellhead leaks and found escaping methane to be low for the set of wells studied. Obviously this study needs to be extended to wells in other fields/states, but if it holds then methane from drilling may not be a serious issue.

    Then there’s a survey of part of Boston (graph below) that found the natural gas system leading like a sieve. While looking for the image below I saw a study which reports 5,893 NG leaks in Washington, DC.

    It may turn out that using NG to replace coal is an OK short term practice while we develop better storage technology. And that where we need to work on escaping methane is in our existing distribution systems.

    If burning methane for electricity releases only 50% as much CO2 as burning coal and we replace 100% coal with 50% NG and 50% wind/solar we cut the coal plant output by 75%. That’s quickly installed technology we have in hand right now.

    • I have a feeling that Boston study is what this was in reference to: “However, the analysis also finds that some recent studies showing very high methane emissions in regions with considerable natural gas infrastructure are not representative of the entire gas system.”

      • My guess is that systems without significant leaks would be the exception, not the rule.

        There was that leak in California that blew up some houses not long ago.

        • It really doesn’t matter what the studies say. Leaks should be fixed as quickly as possible

  • I don’t understand how this new study is meaningful to the gas industry when there is no clear quantitative idea how much of the fugitive methane comes from wetlands, natural gas seepage, farming [ cattle, pigs, chickens, ] , waste dump leakage, ,etc.

  • The “leaking” of CH4 from fracking, which is rightfully concerning, pales in comparison to the methane that is venting from arctic permafrost and arctic ocean hydrates. 2010 was the year that these emissions became virtually uncontrollable and along with some other self reinforcing feed backs pushed us past the tipping point of no return. Methane concentrations in the atmosphere are at a level not seen since the late Permian epoch. As you know that coincided with the largest extinction event in Earths history. Without a major global effort to address the issue humans will soon find themselves following suit.
    There are some things that can be done to degrade CH4 that would require the major countries in the northern hemisphere to commit to an effort that would make the Manhattan Project look like kindergarten play time but in today’s political climate (no pun intended) I don’t imagine that anything will be done. Instead we will focus on minor issues and avoid the real problem. For anyone who would like to see what all the fuss is about check out AMEG.ME to see why scientists are in panic mode, as all of us should be.
    I hate to be a wet blanket but human extinction ( along with most other life forms) is where we are headed. I realize that I’ll be poo pooed and called an alarmist (or worse) but knowing what I know it would be a crime for me to remain silent. The climate chaos that is in the news today is just the tip of the iceberg. Hiding from the truth will serve no good purpose.

    • “I hate to be a wet blanket but human extinction ( along with most other life forms) is where we are headed. I realize that I’ll be poo pooed and called an alarmist (or worse) but
      knowing what I know it would be a crime for me to remain silent.”

      Better to remain silent and thought a fool………

      The sky will remain up where it belongs. Get a grip.

      • Typical thoughtless and emotional response. It’s OK, I’m used to it now. If I’ll be thought a fool, I choose to speak. I have a good grip on the science and I tell you this. The self reinforcing feed backs that are already in motion are taking us along the same atmospheric chemistry path that was responsible for the late Permian Extinction Event. To suggest that the outcome for the life that is extant today will be any different is a stretch.
        The sky will certainly remain where it is, it just won’t be exactly the same sky. Get back to me in five years and tell me then to get a grip.

        Best personal regards,

        • Have you considered the fact that we have technologies not even dreamed about 200 years ago? That there were no animals with more than very rudimentary language during the Permian?

          Large scale human deaths? Possibly.

          Extinction? Very unlikely.

          • Bob,

            I’m not sure what technologies you are referring to or what relevance language capabilities have in this instance. Like you, when I was first confronted with the claim that extinction was, not only possible, but imminent I to thought “unlikely”.


            No sane person could possibly want to even have to contemplate the idea. Having done so has impacted me profoundly. At 68 I’m not the man I was at 66. I see everything through a different world view.

            Being unconvinced of Light’s claims I decided to look more closely at climate issues. What I learned has led me to accept that, absent a massive effort to address the CH4 venting from the arctic the planet will warm as much as 16 deg C in short order. At that temperature a profound extinction event will not only be likely but inevitable. Along with that we will need to abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible and we both know that that isn’t going to happen. We will also be forced to change our agricultural paradigm as quickly and that will also not happen.

            Even if global temperature changes were not a factor at all we are in for what you term, “large scale human deaths”. The global economic system is unraveling before our eyes and at some point will collapse. When you compound that with climate chaos (we are seeing that starting in earnest today) I don’t see how we are going to make it.

            The oceans are changing rapidly and O2 producing phytoplankton are being severely impacted. What led to the Permian was CO2 >>CH4 >>H2S and we are on that “down escalator” for want of a better term.

            Humans have always gone through mental contortions to deny their own personal deaths (religion) and will certainly find the idea of collective death (extinction) all but unthinkable.

            My bottom line is this: If we don’t get serious about what we are doing and make all the necessary painful changes needed our time here will soon end. As a man with eight grandchildren and a great grandchild on the way the reality of what is happening is as soul crushing as it gets. So, I too hope that I am wrong.. wrong.. wrong..

          • I’m older than you, Ed. You aren’t going to win the discussion with birthdays. ;o)

            Perhaps you haven’t read the hundreds of anti-fossil fuel, pro-renewable comments I’ve posted on this site. So let me assure you that I think we’re moving much too slowly to deal with climate change.

            My point is that humans today are different from any animal that ever existed before. We have the technology to take a percentage of our population (I’m not interesting in arguing whether it’s closer to 1% or 99%) into a temperature controlled, filtered air environment and growing the food we need.

            Think underground cities. Solar panels on the surface. Growing crops during the mildest season and under artificial light the rest of the time.
            I just don’t see human extinction coming our way.

          • Bob,
            I have followed you writing for a while now. I’m not trying to win a debate here because that isn’t what my concerns are about regardless of birthdays.

            I have thought about the scenario you mention and it could possibly work. But think of this. If there were a major and rapid collapse of civilization there are still about 400 nuclear plants that would be a major problem. It takes decades to completely decommission a Uranium based reactor (Thorium is a different animal but that’s not what we have) and requires an industrial base to complete. So if your group isn’t willing to live underground for a very, very long time I suggest that they develop the capability to shut out the lights, as it were…

            Some claim that underground cities are already extant and more being built but I doubt that. Large compounds, possibly. Cities, I’d have to see for myself.

            Obviously I can’t look into the future but from what I can see from here, I am not sanguine about the future.

          • I’m also not sanguine about the future. But I think it very unlikely we will see humans go extinct.

            That is my only point. Best to try not to read more into it.

          • Point understood and I certainly hope that you are right!

      • “Better to remain silent and thought a fool………”

        I should just point out that staying silent for fear of embarrassment causes more problems then speaking up does.

Comments are closed.