When Stephen Conley, an atmospheric scientist and pilot, saw an emissions indicator skyrocket in his Mooney TLS prop plane, he knew he had found a significant methane leak. His gas-detecting Picarro analyzer indicated he was flying through a plume of gas escaping at 900kg per hour. The colorless, odorless gas was enough to cover a football field to a height of 20 feet [6 m] in a single day. But this flight wasn’t over the highly publicized Aliso Canyon in Los Angeles; Conley was circling the Bakken Shale, a rock formation in western North Dakota that has been aggressively pumped for oil and natural gas.
Day in and day out, small leaks in oil and gas producing regions like the Bakken Shale are emitting methane in quantities that collectively rival or even exceed Aliso Canyon. New figures released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last month indicate the potent greenhouse gas is being emitted from leaks across the US in quantities “much larger” than previously thought.
Only in the past three years has there been a concerted effort to study emissions from oil and gas producing regions. Many of the new studies have been coordinated by or received funding from the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) as part of its comprehensive project to track methane emissions from natural gas production and transmission.
The results have been striking. Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado Boulder found methane escaping from Utah’s oil and gas producing Uintah Basin at 55 metric tons per hour. The same researchers found oil and gas related methane in Colorado’s Denver-Julesburg Basin leaking at 19.5 metric tons per hour. In the Barnett Shale area of North Texas, methane emissions were sampled at 60 metric tons per hour.
By comparison, if the emissions from Los Angeles’s Aliso Canyon leak were averaged out over its nearly four-month duration (it was deemed permanently sealed on 18 February) that leak would be equivalent to an estimated 35 metric tons per hour. Aliso Canyon is expected to be California’s largest single contributor to climate change.
“Aliso Canyon maybe represents one half of what’s coming out of a small basin like the Denver-Julesburg area, but a much smaller fraction of something like the Uintah Basin or Barnett in Texas,” said Colm Sweeney, lead scientist for the NOAA Earth System Research Lab Aircraft Program.
Researchers at NOAA report finding methane – the primary component of natural gas – leaking from the entire natural gas supply chain, from extraction to storage to transmission. The leaks can come from improperly sealed fittings, faulty valves and compressors, improperly closed hatches and many other sources, stemming from both human error and equipment failure. “There’s no really compelling smoking gun that one particular type of thing leaks more than another,” said Dan Zimmerle, director of the Electrical Power Systems Laboratory at Colorado State University.
Zimmerle is co-author of several papers that have tested for onsite leaks at a number of major natural gas companies; none of the companies whose facilities were tested were found to be leak-free. These include Access Midstream (now a part of Williams Corporation), Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, Hess Corporation, Southwestern Energy and Williams Corporation. In an email from company spokesman Tom Droege, Williams Corporation said it was committed to finding environmentally responsible ways of developing natural gas, “including ensuring that methane emissions are addressed and lowered”. Droege pointed to the company’s voluntary participation in the study as proof of its commitment.
The difficulty in detecting leaks in rural areas remains great, however, simply because little to no regular monitoring takes place. Conley, who helped investigate the Aliso Canyon leak, said he believed that leak was discovered and quantified only because it began in a populated area. The leak occurred at a point in the distribution line at which an odor had been added to the gas that could be detected by local residents. Without the odor and without direction to fly over Aliso Canyon from the California Energy Commission, with whom Conley had a contract, the full extent of the Aliso Canyon leak might not have been detected for some time. “That to me is the scariest take-home from all of this. That this [detection] all happened because of luck,” Conley said.
Most scientists concede that a certain amount of methane loss is to be expected as part of natural gas production, but nearly all agree the current numbers are far too high. In fact, researchers have found methane losses of nearly 17% of production in the Los Angeles Basin, losses of 6-12% of natural gas production in the Uintah Basin and losses of approximately 4% of production in the Denver-Julesburg Basin.
“It shouldn’t be nearly as high as what we’re reporting, even in the underreported cases,” said David Babson, senior fuels engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It shouldn’t be as high as two or three or four percent higher. It should definitely be near zero.”
“It’s not hard to see how a lot of little problems over the course of a year add up to some fairly big numbers”, said Mark Brownstein, vice president of the EDF’s Climate and Energy Program. “Both in terms of total amount of methane being lost, but also the climate impact that that has.”
The EPA bases its current regional emissions estimates on typical equipment and processes used in oil and gas production. That is a big problem, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Those systematic tests don’t pick up the day that the valve was stuck open, or the day that there’s a liquid unloading event that has a whole bunch of methane emissions and so you don’t capture the true amount of methane,” Babson said.
A 2013 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that anthropogenic emissions of methane in the US could be off by as much as 50%. That in turn means that climate change modeling data produced by the EPA could be seriously flawed.
To date, the government has made painfully slow progress toward addressing methane emissions. In 2014, the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) announced $30m in funding for programs to address methane emissions from energy production. And the White House announced in January 2015 a plan to cut US methane emissions from 2012 levels by 2025. Though if the 2012 emissions estimates are inaccurate, that plan likely requires revisiting.
The EPA is also currently developing rule changes to address methane emissions in new and modified oil and gas projects. But the agency has yet to address methane leaks at existing facilities.
Gas producers stand to benefit from repairing leaks because they are able to sell what doesn’t escape. “If you make the fix, then you’re seeing added gas sales or added gas volumes, compared to if you didn’t make the fix, although there is an upfront cost,” said Nicholas Potter, a natural gas analyst at Barclays. “There is a potential savings there if leaks can be prevented.”
In an August 2015 report, Barclays described the current technologies being used to limit methane emissions under normal economic conditions as having “relatively reasonable upfront costs and depending on natural gas price levels pay back periods below three years”. Potter said when gas prices drop, however, that leads to less financial incentive to act.
But before the leaks are fixed, they need to be detected. For Conley and others, that can only be achieved through regular, independent monitoring. “It would be great to go back to all of the major fields and do it every month,” Conley said.
Source: [The Guardian; 2 March 2016]
Emphasis & metric units added