Study Delivers Good, Bad News on Methane Leaks from Fracking Operations

Methane leaks from ‘well completions’ were significantly lower than EPA’s numbers, but equipment leaks were much higher than expected.

By Lisa Song, InsideClimate News and Jim Morris, Center for Public Integrity

A long-awaited study led by the University of Texas at Austin shows that methane emissions from natural gas drilling sites are about 10 percent lower than recent estimates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The research adds fresh fuel to the debate over whether natural gas is less carbon-intensive than coal. Although natural gas power plants emit smaller quantities of greenhouse gases than coal-fired plants, the production and distribution of natural gas release large amounts of methane, creating uncertainty about the fuel’s overall climate impact. Methane is 20 to 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

The new study is significant because the scientists had direct access to production sites, allowing them to measure methane emissions from hundreds of wells across the United States. Previous studies by independent scientists largely relied on data gathered on publicly accessible land close to company property.

The study had been viewed with skepticism before its release because 90 percent of the $2.3 million in funding came from nine energy companies, including Encana, Chevron and a subsidiary of ExxonMobil. The remaining 10 percent came from the Environmental Defense Fund, which, unlike many other environmental groups, has a history of working with the oil and gas industry.

The participating companies gave the researchers access to their facilities, but the scientists controlled the study design, data collection and analysis. The results were published today in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

See Also:

Efficiency Drove U.S. Emissions Decline, Not Natural Gas, Study Says

Fracking Bill Triggers Rift Among Illinois Green Groups

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