Oil and Gas Operations Release 60% More Methane than EPA Thought

Oil and Gas Operations Release 60% More Methane than EPA Thought

Some 13 metric tons of methane are released by oil and gas operations in the U.S. each year – almost 60% more than current estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – a recent study has found. [1]

It turns out that natural gas might not be the “cleaner” alternative to fossil fuels that scientists believed it to be.

Methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, is a greenhouse gas that has 80 times the climate warning impact of carbon dioxide over a 2-decade span.

The study, conducted by the Environmental Defense Fund, with support from 15 other institutions, “is by far the most comprehensive body of research of its kind,” according to the fund’s chief scientist and study co-author Steven Hamburg.

The EPA estimates that the current leak rate from the U.S. oil and gas system is 1.4%. However, the study found the actual leak rate to be 2.3%. That doesn’t sound like much, but 2.3% is enough natural gas to fuel 10 million homes, and the price of the lost gas is about $2 billion.

Jeff Peischl, a scientist from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, said the leaks have about the same climate impact of carbon dioxide emissions from all U.S. coal-fired power plants operating in the U.S. in 2015. [2]

To get a more accurate leak rate, the researchers reviewed measurements from more than 400 wells in 6 basins in Pennsylvania, Texas, Colorado, Utah, North Dakota and Arkansas, where oil and gas are produced. Furthermore, the researchers examined measurements from midstream facilities, valves, tanks, and aerial surveys of oil and gas operations. [1] [3]

The production and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil emits methane, but other sources do, also, including livestock and other agricultural practices, as well as decaying organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills. [1]

But the problem of leaking methane from the oil and gas industry could be remedied very easily. All the industry has to do is seek out and fix them. [3]

Read: Here’s What People Near the Worst Gas Leak in History Experienced

Study co-author and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist Colm Sweeney said in a press release:

“Natural gas emissions can, in fact, be significantly reduced if properly monitored. Identifying the biggest leakers could substantially reduce emissions that we have measured.”

Hamburg added:

“This is a solvable problem because you are losing product that you could sell. But the entire industry has to take action to stop the problem.”

In fact, the International Energy Agency estimates that the industry could reduce its global emissions by 75% and that 2/3 of the leaks could be fixed “at zero net cost.” [2]

The study authors write in the report that the EPA’s estimates are likely lower because the agency first asks the industry’s permission to take measurements, so workers try to cap as many of the leaks as possible before their visit. [3]

Read: CDC Axes Long-Awaited Climate Change and Health Summit

The Trump administration’s efforts to reverse Obama-era methane rules haven’t had much of an impact on the EPA’s lower estimates, according to Hamburg. However, he said those efforts might affect the agency’s ability to respond to higher estimates.

“The data is saying the problem is worse than we thought, the need for regulation is thus that much greater.”

The study is published in the journal Science.


[1] USA Today

[2] E&E News

[3] EcoWatch