A new study from University of Texas researchers found that methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing sites across the U.S. were only 0.38 percent of natural gas production — 10 percent below levels reported last year by the same research group.
“The overall average emission rates reported in this work are lower than the previous data sets reported by [the UT researchers] for the United States, and for British Columbia and Alberta,” UT reported in its study that was backed by the Environmental Defense Fund.
UT researchers closely examined methane emissions from liquid unloadings and pneumatic controller equipment at natural gas (and a few oil) well pad sites across the country. Researchers found that “19 percent of the pneumatic devices accounted for 95 percent of the emissions from pneumatic devices, and 20 percent of the wells with unloading emissions that vent to the atmosphere accounted for 65 percent to 83 percent of those emissions,” according to UT.
Last year, UT researcher David Allen and his colleagues found that the methane emissions rate was 0.42 percent of total production. Both estimates, however, are well below the EPA’s methane leakage estimate of 1.5 percent of total natural gas production.
The EDF-UT study comes as the Environmental Protection Agency is set to announce whether or not it will impose new regulations on natural gas producers to curb methane emissions. The agency has already required oil and gas companies to increase their reporting of methane emissions, but fracking supporters fear new rules could be on the way.
Environmental groups have been aggressively pushing for the Obama administration to impose new regulations on methane emissions. Green groups argue that methane is 80 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and not reducing it could make global warming worse.
“This latest UT study is further evidence that methane leakage is a national problem and national regulation is urgently needed to reduce this powerful pollutant and set a level playing field for the over 6,000 oil and gas production companies in business in the United States today,” writes Mark Brownstein, attorney with EDF — the same group that sponsored the UT study.
Environmentalists say the study illustrates the growing problem of methane emissions.
Brownstein noted the study found that “methane emissions from pneumatic controllers are 17 percent higher than the estimates industry has been citing, and total emissions from these devices may be more than twice as high as they’ve been saying.”
But oil and gas drilling supporters argue that methane emissions have been falling in recent years due to market forces and voluntary government programs to reduce methane. They argue the real story is that methane leakage rates are much lower than was previously thought.
“Although the research does show methane emissions on the right trajectory, the study also finds that a ‘small subset of natural gas wells are responsible for the majority of methane emissions,’” writes Steve Everley with Energy In Depth, an industry-backed education campaign. “That means most wells and their associated equipment have been effectively designed to mitigate or even eliminate emissions.”
Earlier this year, the EPA found that in 2013 “reported methane emissions from petroleum and natural gas systems sector have decreased by 12 percent since 2011, with the largest reductions coming from hydraulically fractured natural gas wells, which have decreased by 73 percent during that period.”
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