News Section
Stories from Climate Central's Science Journalists and Content Partners

Methane Leaking in Utah Suggests Higher National Rate

A new study of the air above a natural gas field in Utah suggests that far more methane gas may be escaping into the atmosphere from drilling operations than previously estimated. The study, to be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, is the first to use an aircraft to directly sample the air downwind of natural gas and oil wells in order to calculate emissions of methane and contributors to smog. Most other studies to date have relied on various estimating techniques to determine methane emissions associated with natural gas drilling.

Equipment associated with natural gas exploration and development in Utah's Uintah Basin, and the plume from a distant power plant.
Credit: David Oonk, CIRES.

The new study sheds insight on a critical question — just how much methane gas, which in the short-term is a far more powerful global warming agent than carbon dioxide (CO2) — is escaping from drilling, processing, shipping, and burning natural gas in the U.S.? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that, nationally, the “methane leakage” rate is about 1.5 percent, but other recent studies have suggested that is a lowball estimate.

This new study, while limited in scope to one natural gas field on one particular day in 2012, also argues for a higher estimate of methane leakage, on the order of between 6.2 and 11.7 percent.

Colm Sweeney, a coauthor of the study and a scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Climate Central that he was surprised by the “huge amount” of methane emissions the study found. “We’re estimating that 9 percent of that is just leaking right out, never getting to the end of the pipeline . . . to the actual user point,” he said.

With the U.S. increasingly relying on natural gas to generate electricity, displacing dirtier coal, a critical question facing scientists and government regulators is exactly how beneficial the switch will be for curbing man-made global warming. Over the long-term, natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel than coal is because it emits far less CO2, the main long-term global warming gas. And already, burning more natural gas has helped dramatically lower U.S. carbon emissions from the power sector.

Yet over the short-term, natural gas production also releases methane gas, which is 25 times more powerful in warming the climate than CO2 is over a 100-year time horizon, according to the study.

Scientists have estimated that, across all the various stages of natural gas production, such as drilling, processing, and shipping the fuel, anywhere from 0.71 to 7.9 percent of the methane produced ends up escaping into the atmosphere, a phenomenon known as “methane leakage.” The problem is no one knows exactly how much methane is leaking into the air from natural gas production in the U.S., and that rate is crucial to calculating the fuel’s climate benefits.

A study published in 2012 found that if more than 3.2 percent of natural gas leaks into the atmosphere, the electricity produced from natural gas will have a larger immediate climate impact compared to a coal-fired power plant.

And a report released by Climate Central researchers in May found that while a 1.5 percent leak rate would achieve an immediate 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions at the individual power plant level, if the leak rate were as high as 8 percent, there would be no climate benefit at all from switching to natural gas rather than using coal for more than 60 years.

“If we’re leaking a lot of methane we’re counteracting any sort of (beneficial) impact in the near-term,” Sweeney said.

The new study by scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows that more methane may be escaping into the atmosphere than previously estimated, and it also offers other researchers a method to use for carrying out similar studies that would directly sample air over natural gas facilities, rather than relying on estimates from emissions databases.

For the new study, scientists used a low-flying research aircraft and ground-based instruments to collect air samples over the Uintah natural gas field in Uintah County, Utah. The county is home to about 4,800 natural gas wells, and about 1,000 oil wells. This basin accounts for about 1 percent of total U.S. natural gas production.

A satellite view of natural gas wells that dot the Uintah Basin in Utah.
Credit: CIRES.

The researchers took advantage of ideal weather conditions on Feb. 3, 2012, to conduct their study. A cold front had swept through the area the previous day, leaving a pristine air mass in place with light and steady winds. Using instruments aboard a single-engine turboprop aircraft and ground-based instruments, the scientists were able to calculate the emissions from the natural gas field by sampling the air mass upwind, above the field, and downwind from the production area.

The aircraft measurements allowed the researchers to estimate the proportion of methane and other emissions that came from oil and gas infrastructure, finding that methane emissions from the oil and natural gas fields in Uintah County totaled more than 120,000 lbs an hour on the day of the flight. That emission rate is about 6 to 12 percent of the average hourly natural gas production in Uintah County during the month of February.

Researchers flew on other days, but were unable to get samples with such low uncertainty levels as they did on Feb. 3, due to more erratic weather conditions.

Although the study was limited to one particular day, Sweeney said he and his colleagues are confident that emissions on other days are similar to what they detected.

“We have no reason to believe that that time period was any different in terms of (drilling activities),” Sweeney said.

There are, however, suggestions that methane leakage rates may be lower in natural gas fields in other states, and efforts are underway to take this study’s techniques and apply them to production areas in Texas, Colorado, and Pennsylvania.

“I’m not sure that we’re ready to say that Utah is representative of the whole world or even the U.S.,” Sweeney said, cautioning that further research is needed before concluding that the national leakage rate is significantly higher than the EPA estimate, let alone as high as in Uintah County.

The follow-up studies may be more difficult to conduct than the Utah experiment, Sweeney said, since the Uintah Basin lacks other pollution sources aside from natural gas and oil drilling, making air sampling less complicated there. 

Related Content
Earthquakes 'May Contribute to Methane Leaks'
Limiting Methane Leaks Critical to Gas, Climate Benefits
Methane Leaks May Negate Climate Benefits of Natural Gas
Good News, Bad News from New EIA Emissions Analysis
EIA's Most Important Insights About Our Energy Future
Amid Energy Boom, Report Warns of Unsustainable Path


By Dave (Basking Ridge, NJ 07920)
on August 6th, 2013

“…….Over the long-term, natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel than coal is because it emits far less CO2, the main long-term global warming gas. And already, burning more natural gas has helped dramatically lower U.S. carbon emissions from the power sector.”

This may be technically correct. But it is an unfounded statement if you insert CO2 equivalent emissions instead of “carbon emissions”. Clearly, the real truth of US CO2(e) emissions is unknown when fugitive methane emissions are likely overly conservatively estimated as clearly indicated here. Until we have much more extensive real data relating to modern activities and based on independent measurements we will not know that. Emissions might actually be growing as a result of natural gas use. Many more field studies like this one are desperately needed.

Leakage is the great climate change Achilles heel to the rapidly constructed environmentally friendly image of natural gas.

Doubly worrying is that the actual measurements in this study from which a leakage of about 9% of production was deduced were only of the gas field itself. In view of that the author estimate of total leakage of 6.2 to 11.7% may be conservative since there are numerous additional opportunities for methane leakage throughout the downstream system. One leakage opportunity not mentioned here is in the compression to LNG for shipping overseas and the leakage in the end use systems which is exported to the destination countries.

Reply to this comment

By Giovanni Lamacchia (Bari/Italy)
on August 7th, 2013


Reply to this comment

By Lee James (Coupeville, WA 98239)
on August 7th, 2013

The petroleum industry already knows all of what this flyover study suggests. Gentlemen in the petroleum industry, can we have more honesty and transparency? How about corporate citizenship and sound business practice, for the long term?

As usual, money (in the short-term) is the driver. Natural gas is in many case a nuisance gas in the quest for the real prize: oil. Industry refers to escaped gas as “fugitive gas.” This term makes it sound like industry tries its best to hang onto all the gas, but this is not the case. Industry currently lacks the ability to transport and store all of the gas being produced. Why produce so much? Again, it is in a large part a byproduct of the quest for oil - the commodity that commands a high price in an international marketplace. U.S. natural gas currently lacks an international marketplace and is mostly in oversupply here. Perversely, by leaking gas, the price of a therm stays higher.

I suggest that the petroleum industry knows about all the methane that never makes it to an end-user. The industry knows about the leaks at the drill site, the miles of gas collection piping needed to try to keep up with what is coming out of countless wells, venting, flaring, compressor leaks along the pipeline, and finally, what happens when they hand off to the local gas distributor who has another extensive set of distribution lines with countless leaks.

Natural gas sounds great in theory as our ideal “transition fuel” away from petroleum. In practice, it is something else. More studies please—quick! -Because what a world of fiction we live in.

Reply to this comment

By Eric Peterson (Front Royal, VA 22630)
on August 8th, 2013

The leakage we are talking about is completely trivial.  The methane deposits associated with the gas wells are a tiny fraction of all methane deposits so even if all the methane is lost into the atmosphere it is a drop in the bucket.

We have 50,000 tcf off our coasts and used 25 tcf of gas in 2011.  See That’s 3 orders of magnitude less than our total even if leakage is 200%.  The Arctic has 30,000 tcf.  Only about 3.5% of that Arctic methane is at any risk of melting.  That itself is no danger and not the 0.1% of that amount that would leak with 100% leakage annually.

With 10% leakage for 100 years it would equate to around 1% of the natural Arctic methane.  It’s hard to imagine economically-driven technology allowing that high a leakage level that far into the future.

Reply to this comment

By Dick Duffy (Maywood, NJ 07607)
on August 10th, 2013

The issue of leakage is a bit of a red herring. Let’s assume more studies are done and the initial leakage assessment resulting from the Utah study is correct (”...between 6.2 and 11.7 percent.”). So, OK, what has to be done? The answer would be to tighten up the entire well-to-wheels processes and linkages. Let’s assume tightening up is cost prohibitive…what next? Stop using natural gas? Hardly.

In my experience, all competing alt-fuels - that can in any way be considered practical in today’s world and in the near future - all have their flaws. I have no doubt that methane is leaking as the result of natural and man-made action. My questions is “So?” If it’s all true, and we cannot fix it for whatever reason, that leads us back to the beginning - a world in need of clean-burning fuels. And, until we come up with something else that performs, costs, and is plentiful to meet real-world energy needs, we’ve got to work with what our planet has provided.

Reply to this comment

Name (required):
Email (required):
Enter the word "climate" in the box below:

[+] View our comment guidelines.

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment will not appear until reviewed by Climate Central staff. Thank you for your patience.