Climate Change Completed natural gas wellhead installation (

Published on July 28th, 2014 | by Sandy Dechert


Do Fugitive Emissions Of Methane Create A Fossil Fuel Tossup?

July 28th, 2014 by  

A longer version of this article, with commentary, was released in one of our sister publications, Planetsave, on Sunday, July 27.

Completed natural gas wellhead installation  (

Completed natural gas wellhead installation (

Scientific American has raised an issue that’s been puzzling environmental and climate scientists since the beginnings of the natural gas boom in the United States. With ClimateWire, the nation’s most reputable lay science journal published a review of two articles last week by Stefan Schwietzke, a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, in Environmental Science & Technology and Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering. One of the papers begins:

“The amount of methane emissions released by the natural gas (NG) industry is a critical and uncertain value for various industry and policy decisions, such as for determining the climate implications of using NG over coal.”

Methane emissions study methodology (

Methane emissions study methodology (

Concerned about a possibly freewheeling decision to phase out coal for power in favor of America’s bountiful natural gas reserves, which emit only half the carbon dioxide of coal energy, Schwietzke’s team went after some concrete data on fugitive emissions of methane from leaks at gas drilling wellheads and through pipelines and processing infrastructure. His researchers worked out the methodology seen at right.

They recalculated previous inventories from the Environmental Protection Agency, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and other sources to pin down oilfield and coal emissions with more certainty. They then made natural gas calculations and put the results through a custom atmospheric computer model. And guess what? The researchers concluded that “further emissions reductions by the NG industry may be needed to ensure climate benefits over coal during the next few decades.”

Pathway for fugitive methane emissions  (

Pathway for fugitive methane emissions (

It turns out that fugitive emissions of methane from gas drilling and production are probably more harmful to the world’s climate than previously thought. Much more harmful. Until now, scientists had lowballed the potential for fugitive emissions of methane from gas drilling. EPA’s current estimate of emissions, set at 1.2% mostly on the basis of petroleum company estimates, was much lower than the range of averages computed by the new study (2–4%). Three percent is the generally accepted tipping point. Outlier results from some sites measured even higher, with Utah’s Uinta basin drilling apparently the most dangerous, at almost 10%. The Europe-based Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) had also underestimated methane production. The disparity between bottom lines appears to stem from this prior failure to accurately gauge fugitive emission rates for methane. (More details are in the Planetsave article if you are interested.)

Schwietzke’s results were published last week in two respected and peer-reviewed scientific journals: Environmental Science & Technology and Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering. They go a long way toward confirming previous independent findings by David Allen of the University of Texas, Robert Howarth at Cornell, and Scot Miller from Harvard.

Petroleum geologists and engineers have known about the technology to tap the nation’s deep shale natural gas potential for decades. They back-burnered it because petroleum prices hadn’t gone high enough to meet expenses, but now that oil has gone up and up and become scarcer, it’s possible to justify the costly and disruptive hydraulic fracturing needed to go after deep-shale gas.

When the economics appeared to work out, oil and gas companies leapt right onto fracking. President Obama leapt right after them with the “transitional (bridge) fuel” idea. Suddenly, the American financial forecast looked a lot brighter. The President has started backpedaling on the greenhouse gas issue a bit since the National Climate Assessment and other studies earlier this year began clarifying the emissions scenarios.

Now that he appears to know the real score on fracking and fugitive emissions, however, perhaps we can expect further efforts on renewables. After all, they’re cheaper and farther along in development than carbon capture and storage.

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About the Author

covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's currently on the climate beat for Important Media, having attended last year's COP20 in Lima Peru. Sandy has also worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm. She writes for several weblogs and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."

  • JamesWimberley

    What “bountiful natural gas reserves” ? The US has a rising production of natural gas, but as everybody knows this, like the oil growth, has has only been achieved with drilling a huge number (45,000 for oil and gas combined in 2012 – link) of very short-lived fracked wells. Their output often drops 70% after one year. It’s a frantic treadmill or Ponzi scheme and is going to crash sometime fairly soon.

    • Trey Thee

      The wells are not short lived. They have steep decline curves the first few years and that decline curve can vary by formation. But they are not “short lived”. Some formations do have 70% production drops in the first year, that is true, and yes there can be a bit of a treadmill effect but it’s not a Ponzi scheme. Don’t believe everything you read…

      Additionally, I find it peculiar and puzzling that so many of these articles are now wanting to focus on the “warming” effects of methane. While it’s certainly worth the discussion, it’s hardly the only benefit (or the biggest) for using natural gas over coal. What about all the other emissions that are part of generating electricity? NOx’s, mercury emissions, other particulates that are HUGELY reduced by using natural gas?

      Gas is also a fuel that can be easily used to supplement power generation from renewables. Assuming renewables are the panacea that many would like to pretend (while ignoring their issues) you still need something that can be rapidly brought online. Gas allows that flexibility.
      The recent round of criticism aimed at gas is unfortunately beginning to look more like agenda driven politics. While fugitive methane emissions are worth a discussion and should be minimized, they hardly derail the benefits of gas and saying as much is clearly not looking at the entire “pollution” picture.

      • Bob_Wallace

        “The wells are not short lived.”

        And from there you engage in word play to distract that there is far less gas coming from these wells than is “advertised” by their first months of production. The fact is, it’s going to be expensive to get gas out of most formations because of the rapid output drop.

        That’s actually good because if NG is a bit more expensive it makes storage more competitive.

        And let’s not gloss over the GHG problem with methane. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and we are really hurting ourselves by letting it leak into our atmosphere.

        Burning NG as a fill-in for renewables is preferable than burning 100% coal, if we control the leaks. But we should consider NG as only a temporary measure while we devise better storage technology.

        • Trey Thee

          Not sure where you’re getting the info re: distraction. I already clearly stated the 70% is pretty accurate but that it varies by formation, some higher, some lower. As the wells settle out into a more steady decline (3 or so years into their lifecycle, again varies by formation) you find 5% declines and those wells provide much needed incremental production. I certainly agree the initial production is impressive but quickly trails off, however, you can’t just ignore the fact that the wells will produce for decades and add incremental gas supplies.

          It will get more expensive but likely not as expensive as you think. Right now gas is $4/mmbtu and at 8 dollar gas we have significantly more inventory as a nation. At 12 dollar gas you get a really good mix of renewable development, incentives for R&D research on the storage side and huge drilling inventories for continued supply of gas.

          I’m also not glossing over the warming issue with methane but it’s a small piece of the broader pollution picture and perhaps the least important. Furthermore, it can be fairly easily addressed and relatively cheaply once some good data exists on causes and leak locations. Some of that information is now becoming available. Let’s hope the industry responds with valve/seal replacement to stop those fugitive methane releases.

          NG may only be temporary, hard to say really, but it is a really good fuel, so I tend to think it’s sticking around for 40 or so years in mainstream use. I agree storage technology will greatly aid in the use of renewables and I believe by the end of the century renewables and nuclear will make up almost all of our electricity generation. That may sound like a long time, but for my two young daughters and at some point my grand kids, it’s really not all that far away.

          • Bob_Wallace

            “at 8 dollar gas we have significantly more inventory”

            Batteries are now starting to be competitive with gas peakers. Double the price of gas, continue to drop the cost of batteries, and we can drastically cut our use of NG. That works for me.

        • TCFlood

          Unfortunately, the most flexible economic/political pressure point as the cost of gas goes up will be to increase coal use. Redirecting political policy and economic incentives to favor storage is going to be quite a battle.

      • Bryan McAvoy

        I own both natgas and renewable stocks. I don’t personally feel that I have a strong agenda either way. Methane emissions from melting permafrost and other global warming induced feedback mechanisms will probably do much more to warm the planet than releases from the natgas industry. And I think that combined cycle natural gas plants certainly are a better fit with renewables when it comes to rapidly scaling electrical generation. They’re even quite energy efficient.

        Still, we DO need to address CH4 emissions from drilling. I’m sure industry won’t clean up it’s act unless it’s hand is forced. It’ll just be another step in the licensing, permitting and monitoring process. And when it comes to air and water pollution, there are many issues that need to be addressed with fracking wastewater disposal. I’d rather not trade mercury for benzene.

        Man, these thread replies are hard to write, a guy could go on for pages. lol!

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