New Methane Study Confirms Environmental Benefits of Natural Gas

Last week, a new paper was released that suggested the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) underestimates methane leakage rates in the broader economy. Last year the EPA downwardly revised its estimates of methane emissions from natural gas systems based on new technologies, a finding that was more or less confirmed by a study later published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Nonetheless, the new study is very clear that even if methane leaks are 50 percent higher than what EPA estimates, natural gas still retains its environmental advantage when used for power generation.

The paper itself does not look at any new data – it assesses data from studies that have already been completed, running it through its own modeling. As EID has covered nearly every methane paper extensively, there’s not much “new” to report here — but it is worth pointing out a few key facts about this latest contribution to methane research.

Even with 50 percent higher leakage rates natural gas retains environmental benefits.

As the report puts it, “assessments using 100-year impact indicators show system-wide leakage is unlikely to be large enough to negate climate benefits” of natural gas.  The researchers add that natural gas still delivers “robust climate benefits” when used for power generation (p. 3).

MIT News published an interview with one of the co-authors, Francis O’Sullivan, who had the following to say about the paper:  “the shift to natural gas is still a positive move for climate-change-mitigation efforts.”

Several publications — including Science Magazine, Climate Central, and Smithsonian Magazine — ran with headlines emphasizing that conclusion as the key takeaway.

So despite the efforts of some publications to suggest the paper’s key finding was a loss of environmental advantages for natural gas, the researchers actually found the opposite.

Natural gas vehicles bring significant environmental and energy security benefits. 

The researchers claim that the use of natural gas in vehicles could result in a net increase in total greenhouse gas emissions. But the authors also conceded that natural gas vehicles still deliver benefits in terms of local air quality and energy security.

One of the lead researchers, Adam Brandt, said that “fueling trucks and buses with natural gas may help local air quality and reduce oil imports.” Again this was done despite attempts from some in the news media to ascribe a net negative finding to the research with respect to vehicle fuels.

Studies with very high emissions rates are unlikely to be representative of typical leakage rates.

The study states, “recent regional atmospheric studies with very high emissions rates are unlikely to be representative of typical NG system leakage rates.” It goes on to explain that the “greatest challenge for atmospheric studies is attributing observed CH4 concentrations to multiple potential sources (both anthropogenic and natural).”

That makes a lot of sense.  As we noted about one such study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), its chief flaw was that it had no way at all to determine where the methane was coming from.

As the Smithsonian Magazine explains on that point:

If there were natural gas leaks of that magnitude across the natural gas industry, then methane levels in the atmosphere would be much higher that surveyed in the air sampling studies. “Most devices do not leak,” Brandt noted. Only about 1 to 2 percent of the devices used in natural gas production leak any methane, and large emitters—what the researchers nickname “superemitters”—are even rarer.

Study promotes producers continuing to reduce leaks.

If anti-fracking activists were hoping to use this paper as a rallying cry to shut down oil and gas development, they will be disappointed. The study is clear that there are numerous opportunities available to producers to reduce leakage rates.  From the report:

“Opportunities abound: Many solutions are economically profitable at moderate NG prices, with some technologies already being adopted or to be required in regulation (23, 26) (e.g., reduced emissions completions). Facility studies using existing technology have found leak- age detection and repair programs to be profitable” (p. 3).

Granted, that’s not to say their premise is entirely accurate; it does not account for the many technologies oil and gas producers are currently adopting to reduce leakage rates.  As we’ve noted many times, a recent study conducted by the University of Texas found that a leakage rate of only about 1.5 percent, which is comfortably below the threshold for natural gas to maintain significant environmental benefits. This study is certainly a testament to the progress that has been made, and it also outlines a path forward to reduce emissions further.

Lower methane emissions is clearly a goal everyone shares, and the important takeaway form this latest report is that “opportunities abound” to reduce leaks even further.  On that note, oil and gas producers are already making great strides in reductions and will continue to do so in the years to come.


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